From our discussion of the estimating process we can suggest two key variables which determine the character of intelligence debates, and in particular the extent to which they generate heat as well as light. One of these is the salience of intelligence debates for debates in the wider defence establishment on such matters as strategic doctrine and force planning. The military services, as participants in both sets of debates, ensure that other members of the intelligence community are well aware of the political significance of particular estimates. The other variable is the area of ambiguity. The greater this area the greater the potential variety of competing estimates that can, more or less, be persuasively supported. The growth of the knowledge base in narrowing the area of ambiguity narrows the scope for disagreement. This statement needs two qualifiers. First it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The 1971 Schlesinger report said that it was ‘not at all clear that our hypotheses about foreign intentions, capabilities and activities have improved commensurately in scope and quality as more data comes in from modern methods’. The expansion of the knowledge base will often reflect improvements in the means of collection. Analysts will be provided with material that can be readily collected rather than that which is most needed, and the amount of material coming in often overwhelms the analyst. Furthermore, requests for additional information may be prompted by the ‘jigsaw theory’ of intelligence, to which many academics are also subject, which is the belief that one little, missing scrap of information might provide the clue that will allow one to unravel the whole problem. Such requests may also serve as a substitute for improvement in analytical techniques.1 The second qualifier is that key intelligence debates often turn over questions concerning the nature and reliability of crucial sources. What is or is not to be included in the knowledge base can become the subject of heated controversy, especially in the context of debates of a high political salience.


Atomic Bomb Intelligence Community Ballistic Missile Strategic Bomber Soviet Threat 
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  1. 3.
    Perry McCoy Smith, The Air Force Plans for Peace 1939–1945 (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1970) pp. 52–3.Google Scholar
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    Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, History of the USAEC, vol i, The New World 1939–1946 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962) pp. 359–60.Google Scholar
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    Lewis L. Strauss, Men and Decisions (New York: Doubleday, 1962)Google Scholar
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    Charles Murphy, ‘The US as a Bombing Target’, Fortune (Nov 1953)Google Scholar
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    Charles Murphy, ‘The New Air Situation’, Fortune (Sep 1955) p. 87.Google Scholar
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    Joseph Alsop ‘Comments’, Foreign Policy (Fall 1974) p. 86.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lawrence David Freedman 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lawrence Freedman
    • 1
  1. 1.Royal Institute of International AffairsUK

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