Leaders Need Dissenting Voices

Some commentators attribute the failure of American and British intelligence services on Iraq to "group think" -- the power of a group's cohesive culture to blind its members to data that would challenge its conclusion. The term "group think" originated in a brilliant book written by the psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. It describes how competent, intelligent, dedicated humans can accept a group consensus despite powerful evidence that it is in error. The importance of group unity constrains them to agree with something that they might not have accepted in another context. The classic example in Janis' study is the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The American commanders were able and intelligent men, but they knew, as everyone else did, that the Japanese would never dare to attack Pearl.

The New York Times, which has apologized editorially for believing the Iraq evidence, used the group think theory as an explanation of what happened. That might be half the story, but another theory from sociology in the era after the war must be applied: that of William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956). In this theory, loyalty to an organization and the demand that one keep one's bosses happy constrain a person to tell the bosses what they want to hear. The CIA and the British intelligence services, like all human organizations, permit relatively little dissent. If you disagree constantly with what the leaders know is true, your career will be in serious trouble.

The most interesting case discussed by Janis is the Cuban missile crisis. A consensus existed that the United States should attack the Russian sites and invade Cuba. However, Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that they were not going to make his brother the Gen. Tojo (the Japanese premier at Pearl Harbor time) of the 1960s. Later, the president kept asking what happens when the first Russian soldier dies. A nuclear war was avoided because of ''no men'' -- men who violated the consensus and said ''no,'' one of them a president.

The only way to avoid disastrous mistakes by intelligence agencies is to legitimate and encourage adversarial voices -- men and women who argue vigorously that a policy decision is wrong (as did the tiny and unheard State Department intelligence unit to whom even Secretary Colin Powell did not listen). Indeed, these men and women must be ex officio obligated to present the opposite case, so that their careers will not suffer because they did their job. Someone in every agency has to be a Robert Kennedy. That's a difficult, perhaps impossible, role to play when you know that the bosses all the way up to the Oval Office want to go in a certain direction. There need not be any formal pressure, though Vice President Dick Cheney's frequent visits to the CIA certainly were pressure -- as were Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's instructions to his people to stay away from the CIA.

There was no pretense that the Bush administration was judiciously weighing the pros and cons of a war. Everyone knew the White House was looking for justification. Sure enough, they got it!

An administration needs inside its inner circle a dissenting voice, someone who insists repeatedly: ''You shouldn't do that!'' But in an administration that values loyalty as much as the present one does, that voice will not be heard. The president wanted ''regime change,'' and the CIA gave him reasons for it -- a "slam dunk," as CIA Director George Tenet called it.

Some Bush supporters are arguing that the Senate committee cleared Bush of deceiving the American people. Such a claim is nonsense. He may not have deliberately lied. Nonetheless, he passed on to the American people reasons for war that were weak. He may not have been aware that they were weak, but he should have been. The buck stops at his desk. To blame the loyal CIA for providing him inadequate information is to shrug the responsibility that comes with leadership. Britain's Tony Blair had the grace to assume responsibility. In the present White House, the president is never responsible for anything that goes wrong. Whether he deliberately deceived us does not matter. The fact is, he did deceive us. He should have known better.

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