The bureaucratic value of a free press

How a free press shrinks the OODA loop.

Everyone knows that a free press is the citizen’s only hope of learning what the bureaucrats (and the political appointees) are doing. It’s less widely understood, but not less true, that the bureaucrats and political appointees are frequently just as dependent on the press for their picture of the world.

Organizational structures filter information, frequently filtering out exactly what the folks at the top most need to know. Obviously, no one had dared to tell Saddem Hussein how weak the Iraqi Army actually was; I wonder whether anyone had summoned the nerve to tell him he no longer had any WMD capacity.

Latest case in point: the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib was completed in late February. As of the end of April, when Sy Hersh broke the story in The New Yorker, Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff still hadn’t seen the report. Myers explained to a reporter that the report was “working its way up the chain.”

Note that the report didn’t have that far up to work; it was written by a two-star general, and Myers is a four-star. But for two months, people in between sat on it. Perhaps no one wanted to be the bearer of bad tidings. If I were Myers, I’d be pretty upset at getting blindsided this way, and I’d have some choice things to say to whoever was sitting on this keg of dynamite until it exploded under all of us.

And I’d be grateful to Sy Hersh for cluing me in on what my own organization was doing.

Footnote: The above assumes that Gen. Myers hadn’t actually been told about the report and decided himself not to formally see it in order to dodge his own responsibility. The fact that Myers apparently still hasn’t ordered a copy delivered to his desk raises some questions. But if Myers knew, then substitute “Rumsfeld” or “Bush“: in any case, the people in charge learned things from the press they couldn’t learn from their subordinates.

Update: If you’re less wedded to ignorance than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, or the President of the United States, you can read the Taguba report for yourself.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “The bureaucratic value of a free press”

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