Why We Hedge

When I first began to write finished intelligence, it frustrated me when editors recommended revisions that included words of estimative probability (likely, possibly, probably, the facts appear to be consistent with, and others). I did a thorough job on my products and the language I chose reflected my confidence. I believed vacillation was a sign of sloppy analysis.

However, as I became a more seasoned analyst, I came to appreciate the use of “wobble words,” because even when we think we have the whole story, we sometimes don’t. There is the chance of a deception campaign on the part of the adversary, inaccurate “facts” on which we are basing our analysis, new information as an investigation continues, or even the surfacing of the dreaded unknown unknowns. When we write definitively and our analysis is later found faulty, our professional reputations may suffer; however, on the other end of the spectrum, serious—sometimes irreparable—consequences result.

This is the case of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) used, in part, as justification for the Iraq war. Here is the opening key judgment* of the executive summary:

“We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.”

There is a little room for error or future clarification/modification, but not much. Even if you are “thisclose” to a definitive judgment, it’s a healthy habit to leave room in your analytical products for the unexpected.  

*An interesting side note comes in a report by Rand that suggests the NIE executive summary did not accurately reflect the body of the NIE. Rand writes,

“The body of the NIE contained several qualifiers that were dropped in the executive summary…As the draft NIE went up the intelligence chain of command, the conclusions were treated increasingly definitively.”

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