Failing Intelligence: Contesting Intelligence Estimates in the National Missile Defense Debate, 1992-2000 and the Consequences for US Intelligence and its Oversight
Thesis DisciplinePolitical Science
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
This thesis analyses the policy debate surrounding National Missile Defense in the US during the 1990s from the framework of strategic intelligence failure. It focuses on the Congressional reaction to the release of the national intelligence estimate "NIE 95-19: Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years" and the establishment of a new interpretation of foreign ballistic missile threats to the continental US. The role that partisan politics plays in the oversight of the US intelligence community is a vital and inescapable one. Yet little academic investigation has been devoted to understanding the political nature of intelligence oversight and its potentially catastrophic impact on intelligence product. Instead most of the scholarly literature treats intelligence and its oversight as apolitical, objective processes and intelligence failures as 'sins' produced by human error or organisational dysfunction with little analysis of the essentially subjective nature of political debate. The debate between the Clinton Administration and the Republican Congress can be understood as a conflict between two competing policy frames, each giving their holders a subjective assessment of what threats the US faced from ballistic missiles. Both parties sought to use their competing power over the intelligence community to produce community support for their paradigm and undermine support for that of their rival. The production and release of NIE 95-19 highlighted these competing claims. The unambiguous nature of the NIE's threat projections caused Congress to wield its oversight powers in an ultimately successful attempt to overturn the findings of the NIE. This represented an unprecedented level of Congressional involvement in strategic intelligence interpretation. Most importantly however it highlights the inherent dichotomy produced by current conceptions of strategic intelligence failure. In building a system of oversight that protected US strategic intelligence from certain apparent sources of failure the ability for Congress to actively meddle in the production of strategic intelligence and arguably undermine the value of long-term projections such as the NIE were massively increased.