February 12, 2007

Estimative intelligence language?

The recent report of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq sent me scurrying to try to find out what a "national intelligence estimate" might mean. I think I understand what my auto body shop meant when it gave me a cost estimate to repair the damage to my Toyota after my wife hit a deer on the highway. I also think I understand the mathematical formula that the IRS uses when it asks me to make my quarterly income tax estimates. I admit certain incompetence here but an "intelligence estimate" seemed beyond my understanding.

After some Google and Wikipedia searches, I found out that the National Intelligence Council does this sort of estimating and reports its findings directly to the director of the CIA. But it was still unclear to me what is meant by "estimate" here. Wikipedia says: "estimative intelligence products present what intelligence analysts estimate (not predict) may be the course of future events." Okay, so they don't predict. But the CIA doesn't seem to agree. It says, "Unlike "current intelligence" products, which describe the present, most NIEs forecast future developments..." Already I'm at sea. They don't predict but they do forecast. Is there a language problem here?

A Washington Post article describing the Key Judgments found in the National Intelligence Estimate released Friday, February 2, offered some clues about the special language of intelligence estimating. The Post had the former vice-chairman for evaluation of the National Intelligence Council (the group that writes these reports) annotate these Key Judgments. From the annotations of this 31-year career intelligence officer we can learn some things about this "estimative language" (his own term):

Offers no measurements

Includes long introductory phrases before they get to the main point

Uses estimative generalites that tend to frustrate policymakers

Uses indirection

Uses the favorite estimative adverb, "specifically," to produce a non-quantitative quantity

Uses noun phrases like "significant  population displacement" in an attempt to quantify without being precise

Frequently uses the estimative verb, "judges," to convey a conclusion "based more on analytical tradecraft than on hard intelligence"

Does not give a basis for its positive estimates

Now if only the rest of us  could learn to write like that.

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 12, 2007 12:50 PM