Getting an earful

April 18, 2004

A LESSON from 9/11, reinforced by war in Iraq, is this: Administrations hear only what they want to hear.

This should not be startling, because it's a very human failing. Nobody likes to hear bad news, or even news that throws an unexpected light on things. All administrations make assumptions and live by them. The White House of George W. Bush just does so with greater gusto, perhaps because of its strong ideological bent.

The 9/11 commission hearings have shown that in its early months the Bush administration did not want to hear about terrorism as a pressing worry. It was focused on missile defense, China, energy policy -- and, yes, possibly Iraq -- so the position of counterterrorism chief was downgraded, and growing concerns in the CIA and elsewhere during the summer of 2001 about al-Qaida fell largely on deaf ears.

In 2002, similarly, the administration was uninterested in doubts about Iraq's prohibited weapons.

In 2003, it didn't want to hear about the need for more troops to secure Iraq.

Today, it is deaf to those who call into question the Pentagon assertion that the trouble in Iraq is entirely the doing of criminals, old Baathists and foreign terrorists.

The president draws a link between Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq. We see a link, too: a consistent preference, on the part of the administration, for supposition over information, for belief over fact.

The danger here -- a danger that we believe has been amply confirmed -- is that a government that hears only what it wants to hear is at great risk of pursuing faulty or damaging policies.

By July, the 9/11 commission will be making its recommendations for reform. Already, the White House has said it is considering putting all or most intelligence activity under the direction of a single official. If that would encourage the sharing of information and ideas among agencies, it is a good idea. But if it serves only to stifle debate, to eliminate competing interpretations of necessarily incomplete data, it will do more harm than good.

To guard against fatal self-assurance, the nation needs an intelligence structure that makes room for an official skeptic. A smart administration would always be challenging its own assumptions, but this country is not always blessed with smart administrations. A structural safeguard must be the answer.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York, wrote toward the end of his life against the culture of secrecy in America. Excessive secrecy forecloses debate. It erects a wall against better ideas. It forces even well-intentioned policy-makers to shoot in the dark.

Secrecy helps officials not to hear -- from skeptics or dissenters or anyone else. That makes it a useful tool in the hands of those who brook no doubt. But smart policy comes from openness -- and from listening.

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