The structure of leadership: presidents, hierarchies, and information flow.

Author:Rudalevige, Andrew
 
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As President George W. Bush readied himself for his second term, he made no apologies for his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003. Indeed, in December 2004 he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three of the individuals most integral to the war: former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, General Tommy Franks, and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. Each, the president declared, had "played pivotal roles in great events,.., made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty" (Bush 2004b).

But outside the cozy confines of the medal ceremony, less flattering accounts of those "great events" were in play. In October, commenting on the comprehensive report compiled by weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, President Bush had admitted that "Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there" (Bush 2004a). Administration war plans had assured Americans--and a reluctant Pentagon--that the cost of the war would be minimal and that preparing for postwar security needs was unnecessary, because troops would be greeted with flowers, not grenades (Fallows 2004a). For his part, Bremer oversaw the disastrous disbanding of the Iraqi army (Langewiesche 2004). By the end of 2004, the United States had spent more than $130 billion in Iraq. Worse, American troop deaths had surpassed 1,30{) (plus another 10,000 wounded). And this was itself a small fraction of the Iraqi police and civilian casualties targeted by insurgents or caught in the crossfire.

Implicit in the criticism was an old query first broached in a rather different context: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" In 1973, when Senator Howard Baker first posed it, he was asking whether Richard Nixon knew about the crimes committed by all (or at least many of) the president's men. Asked three decades later, the question was quite literal. Namely: what information was available to President Bush as he made the key decisions about going to war? For instance, the president needed good estimates of the true likelihood that Saddam Hussein's lraq possessed chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons; the willingness of Iraqi guerillas to fight on and undermine the occupation; the chance that Iraq could become a democracy; and the cost of the war and reconstruction, in dollars, lives, and fi)rgone opportunities. Was he provided sufficient data to calculate the probabilities of various outcomes? Did information that might have changed his mind get lost somewhere on its way to the White House? Were bad data somewhere made good? As early as February 2002, a senior administration official complained that President Bush "finds out what he wants to know. But he does not necessarily find out what he might need to know" (Balz and Woodward 2002, A13).

Consider in this vein the questions surrounding the reconstitutinn of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush told the nation that Iraq had sought to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger. The CIA knew this to be false; but National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice told reporters in July 2003 that the many doubts about the veracity of the claim "were not communicated to the president" and that she herself was also "unaware" of any such concerns (Pfiffner 2004, 33).

In September 2002 Vice President Dick Cheney claimed lraq had purchased aluminum tubes that were intended for nuclear centrifuges, constituting "irrefiltable evidence" of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The highest levels of the administration embraced this thesis as proof of an imminent Iraqi threat. However, a lengthy examination by the New York Times two years later found that most experts outside the CIA thought the tubes were meant for conventional artillery rockets (Barstow et al. 2004; see Pfitfner 20()4, 34-36). As the Senate Intelligence Committee later reported, the CIA used its access to top policy makers to downplay dissenters' views: of fifteen reports on the tubes between April 2001 and September 2002, not one included Energy Department specialists' doubts that they could be used in a nuclear centrifuge. The National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 showed "high confidence" that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear capacity, leading with the tubes as evidence; the tubes were then cited in the 2003 State of the Union address and, despite cautions by State Department analysts, in Secretary of State Colin PowelI's crucial presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003.

Despite the long gestation of tile tubes debate, there is little evidence that the details of tile dispute were understood by the White House. CIA Director Tenet later told the Intelligence Committee that he was unaware until September 2002 about the evidence undercutting the centrifuge theory (though even after this, he signed off on Powell's supposedly "ironclad" UN presentation the next February; Woodward 2004, 3{)9). Rice only learned about it shortly after she told a television audience, also in September 2002, that the tubes were "really only suited for nuclear weapons programs." It is not clear how much of what she subsequently discovered was passed along to her boss. All in all, in this area the president does indeed seem to have learned what he wanted to know, but not what he needed to know.

Such a conclusion has wider implications for studying not just the Bush administration but the presidency itself, not just decisions surrounding a particular war but presidential decisions in general. The broader question goes to the nature of statfing and staff organizations. Decisions are the "pulse of the life of the presidency" (Hughes 1973, 29); "information is power because it is the substance of which decisions are made" (Witherspoon 1991, 149); and information, at least in the modern presidency, is a function of staffing (Thomas 1970). Thus, how an administration is organized to provide fbr the flow of advice is of critical interest to scholars and policy makers. What, and what kind of, information reaches presidents, of the nearly infinite amoLmt that in prospect might do so? And how does this affect the ways decisions are conceived, and taken?

It is too early to draw any definite conclusion about the current administration's advisory processes, though below I make a preliminary attempt. However, this essay seeks to present a broader framework for more systematic study of information flow within the Executive Office of the President, combining classic organization theory with formal work on hierarchy and agenda setting with what we know about presidential staffing. While the notion that organization reflects informational needs has received sustained attention in economics and in other subfields of American politics, presidency scholars have been relatively slow to take up the challenge. The basic argument here takes its cue from the "chaos" theory developed in the public choice literature: just as structure must be used to induce equilibria in situations of collective decision making, presidents must impose a limiting institutional structure, in the form of staff, upon a chaotic informational environment. That structure, which may be analogized to the agendas used by legislatures to order and limit their alternatives, has wide bearing on the information received up the hierarchy. The choices made along the way, as advice rises to the president, will matter for the choices he himself makes. Thus, presidents must make prior decisions about how to structure his staff so that the right kind of information reaches him at the top of the pyramid.

I will argue that informational institutions centered on functional tasks (e.g., legislative policy formulation or communications) rather than those tied to specific "policy lines" (e.g., foreign or domestic) will give the president the int:ormation he needs most. That is, a staff hierarchy ensuring that generalist expertise is brought to bear on technical policy will give the president better options than one that isolates policy with specialists, and one that forces crucial policy disputes to the president's level will give him better information about their proper resolution than one that resolves them with "consensus" before reaching the Oval Office. As discussed below, the kind of information any executive needs will cut across different issue areas.

The next two sections lay out these theoretical roots and the hypotheses that spring from them. The article concludes by presenting data from the Truman and Reagan administrations, along with an additional brief case study of the George W. Bush decision-making process. These cases highlight the plausibility of the hypotheses and indicate future lines for more comprehensive research.

The Institutional Presidency and Informational Institutions

Organization is policy, scholars and politicians tell us (1); but in the modern presidency, at least, organization is information, which makes policy. As early as the 1940s, Leonard White's (1948) standard textbook on public administration painted much of the justification for the then new Executive Office of the President (EOP) in informational terms. As Norman Thomas (1970, 561) later put it, the primary job of presidential staff "is to furnish the president with sufficient information and analysis to permit him to make decisions with an awareness of the available alternatives and their probable consequences."

That linkage, between organization and informational needs, has received sustained attention in economics (Arrow 1974), organization theory (Daft and Lengel 1986; Simon 1976), and other subfields of American politics (Burden 200.3; Krehbiel 1991). However, presidential decision making is frequently seen as largely shaped by the idiosyncrasies of whoever is president at the time. As Paul Quirk (1991, 39) observed over a decade ago, research on how presidents obtain and use information "has not made notable advances...

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