Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2004 / 24 Elul, 5764

Daniel Sneider

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The groupthink failure: A centralized bureaucracy won't improve intelligence | When it comes to the failure of our intelligence community to prevent 9/11 and to discover the truth about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, there are two words you need to know - stovepipes and groupthink.

Stovepipes is Beltway talk for the inability of different intelligence agencies to share information. The intelligence flows up and down a single pipe - within the FBI or the CIA, for example - but not between them.

Groupthink describes the failure to challenge assumptions, the pressure to interpret ambiguous evidence to back the collective wisdom and to ignore or minimize information that challenges it.

Stovepipes and groupthink figure prominently in two devastating reports issued in July. The 9/11 Commission report documents how stovepiping made it almost impossible to connect the dots of intelligence that could have painted a picture of al-Qaeda and its plot. A Senate intelligence committee report details how biased groupthink led to false conclusions about the existence of Iraqi WMD.

Those two reports have prompted a rush in Congress to create a centralized intelligence bureaucracy. In its most radical form, a new national intelligence director would have total control over the 15 intelligence agencies, now spread between different departments. It follows the model of the Department of Homeland Security, which grouped existing agencies from different departments.

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Putting all the little boxes into one big box looks good on paper - in theory it ought to yield more coordinated and better intelligence. But centralization actually only worsens the problems of stovepipes and groupthink.

"The whole thing would just be recreated inside that box," said one former senior defense and intelligence official, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations.

"Reorganizing organizations rarely fixes the problem that caused the organization to fail," says former Defense Secretary Bill Perry. "New leadership can, new processes can, and new resources can."

Perry also brings to this subject his experience as a Stanford University engineering professor and his work as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.

The stovepiping of information can be better tackled by finding new systems to connect disparate information in different organizations, Perry told me. Technology exists to do this. "We need a Google-like process to solve the problem," he said. "We don't need a new organization to do it."

Beneath the proposals to reorganize the intelligence bureaucracy, the 9/11 Commission also recommends creating a searchable, linked database available to all agencies, something that, remarkably, does not exist.

Even more troubling, centralization is certain to reduce the competition of analytical views. Agencies that tried to challenge the CIA's groupthink on Iraq - such as the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research or the Department of Energy's nuclear experts - would have even less chance of being heard.

"Decision-makers need to be presented with multiple alternatives," Perry said. But if political leaders don't want to hear conflicting ideas, even a powerful new intelligence director is not likely to change that.

"Presidents want intelligence that agrees with what they're doing," says Donald Gregg, a former senior CIA official who served as national security adviser to the first President Bush. When they hear contrary intelligence, "they resist it like mad."

Good leaders - and Gregg puts the first Bush in this category - ask tough questions and listen to the answers. But in this Bush administration, the groupthink in Iraq began at the top. The intelligence agencies "knew exactly what the White House wanted to hear," Gregg told me.

The reorganization steamroller now revving up in Congress is just groupthink in another form. If the aim is to improve our national security, not to deflect public ire, then Congress should take the time to engage in real deliberation.

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Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Comment by clicking here.


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