1 February
by John Vomastic

 

Truth in a Bureaucracy

Toward the end of my Navy career, I was a program manager in the Washington environment. As a program manager, you present a lot of briefings on your programs. While some people want to ensure the success of your programs and give you more help than you feel is necessary, others look at your programs as a source of funding and would gladly kill them and use the funds for their own purposes.

One particular briefing still sticks in my mind. The person requesting the briefing was not available at the scheduled time and asked his deputy to take the brief. I presented my brief, closing with a summary of the major points which I felt his boss needed to be aware of. The deputy then replied, "But that's not what he wants to hear." To which I replied, "Yes, but he really needs to be aware of these things." To my surprise, his deputy said, "Well, I'm not going to tell him that."

I packed up my viewgraphs and headed back to my office, almost in disbelief at what had just occurred. I had always tried to base my decisions on the best possible information available and actively sought opinions which weren't necessarily to my liking. But here was a staff no longer concerned with ground truth, but rather presenting only information which they perceived their boss wanted to hear.

The deputy was an officer with a distinguished career and I respected him, but I wondered why he had acted that way. Retired Air Force Lt Col Karen Kwiatkowski, during her assignment to the Office of Special Plans under the direction of Douglas Feith, provides an answer. She described a situation where an Army Colonel questioned the validity of the intelligence the office was providing. He was basically told to go along with what was being presented or kiss his career good-bye.

There is another situation that I have observed during formal presentations. If the briefing is to be comprehensive, then the individual who has the greatest knowledge of the program is usually chosen to present even though there may be several layers in the chain of command between the briefer and the person briefed. Sometimes the briefing doesn't go as planned and the person being briefed expresses his displeasure. The boss of the person who gave the briefing jumps up and says "don't worry about it, we'll make it right" and other apologetic words. Can you visualize the person as he exits the room with his back to the door, kowtowing as he leaves?

I wish, I could say it was different in industry where engineering briefs are governed in large part by the technology. When a General Manager says, "We are not going to be awarded the contract based on this proposal," everyone in the room knows exactly what that means. Areas that were risky are altered to present a higher degree of confidence. If the bid price was considered not to be competitive, ways are found to reduce the costs.

The major brief on the WMD in Iraq given by the CIA to Bush fits the above scenarios precisely. The brief was given by John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA. He was an ideal person, since he could provide detailed answers regarding sources and methods behind the intelligence and comment on its credibility. The brief was probably closely coordinated with all the department heads at the CIA and mostly likely represented the most factual information available. After hearing the brief, Bush remarked, "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?" Tenet jumped up from the couch, threw his arms in the air and said "It's a slam dunk case!" When Bush pressed, "George, how confident are you?" Tenet replied, "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk." These words and actions by Tenet confirmed that he would never present to Bush information he did not want to hear.

As a side note, I find the words used by Bush interesting. He said "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD" He did not say to Tenet "You've told me" implying that he had been receiving information on WMD in Iraq from other sources than the CIA. If only Tenet had said "Mr. President, this is the best case we've got" instead of calling it a slam dunk, perhaps it would have started a debate within the administration regarding WMD. But, then again, Bush didn't surround himself with men and women who questioned his judgment, so no debate took place.

The fact that Bush did not like people who disagreed with him was clearly evident in the first of the presidential debates. Here, on the same stage, was a senator who was disagreeing with him. Bush fumed and fussed. His displeasure was evident to everyone in his facial expressions and body language. As a politician, he had learned to respond to difficult questions during interviews and press conferences, but Kerry obviously caught him off guard. He did not make that mistake in the second and third debates.

Bush, in his second term, has rewarded those who have been his most steadfast supporters. Roberto Gonzales has been named Attorney General. When Bush was Governor of Texas, Gonzales never questioned any of the executions, but rather provided perfunctory opinions supporting every one. When Bush gave carte blanche to the CIA for any of its actions, Gonzales dutifully provided the supporting opinions. Condoleezza Rice, who has staunchly supported Bush's policies, even when the basis for them was not true, has been named Secretary of State.

Any organization which is not based on reality or ground truth is destined to have blind spots and failures. This is the case for Iraq, and many believe for the economy as well. The organization has the structural strength of a deck of cards. Bush's Inaugural Address illustrates how closely his policies have drifted from reality. What some have regarded as visionary, others would call delusionary.

 

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