Inaccurate Intelligence, Critical Thinking, the Bush Administration & Iraq

Excerpts from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on faulty intelligence on Iraq begin this set of readings and assignments. Help your high school students hone their own critical thinking skills as they explore what went wrong in the lead-up to the Iraq War.

To the Teacher:

Below are excerpts from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's critique of the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies during the period before the Iraq war. In the Senate committee's view, the intelligence community failed to think critically about the Iraq issue, and this contributed to the U.S. decision to invade. The committee report also raises the question of whether the country went to war on the basis of misinformation and false claims, and whether the Bush administration, having already decided to war on Iraq, created an environment that pressured the intelligence community into judgments to support that decision.
Following the Senate Intelligence Committee report excerpts are assignments and more readings, all exploring the question of the role critical thinking did or didn't play in the lead-up to the Iraq War. The readings address such critical thinking skills as determining the reliability and accuracy of information, understanding the power of peer pressure in making judgments, gaining insight into assumptions and how they can lead to faulty judgments, and, especially, formulating and answering good questions. See also "Teaching Critical Thinking," which is available on this website, for additional materials.

Reading 1:

How intelligent was US intelligence on Iraq?

What went wrong with intelligence agency thinking?
At the request of Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency published in October 2002 a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction. On July 9, 2004, after a year-long review, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a 511-page critique of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate and of the entire intelligence community's assessments of Iraq's weapons programs. About 20% of the Senate committee's critique was censored by the Bush administration. The committee, which includes Republicans and Democrats, agreed unanimously on 110 overall conclusions, including the following six on weapons of mass destruction:
"1. Most of the major key judgments in the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, were either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting....
"2. The intelligence community did not accurately or adequately explain to policy makers the uncertainties behind the judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. (Note: The US intelligence community includes the CIA and 14 other agencies.)
"3. The intelligence community suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction [WMD] program. This groupthink dynamic led intelligence community analysts, collectors and managers to both interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs. This presumption was so strong that formalized I.C. [Intelligence Community] mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and groupthink were not utilized.
"4. In a few significant instances, the analysis in the National Intelligence Estimate suffers from a 'layering' effect whereby assessments were built based on previous judgments without carrying forward the uncertainties of the underlying judgments.
"5. In each instance where the committee found an analytic or collection failure, it resulted in part from a failure of intelligence community managers [to] encourage analysts to challenge their assumptions, fully consider alternative arguments, accurately characterize the intelligence reporting, or counsel analysts who had lost their objectivity.
"6. ....Most, if not all, of these problems stem from a broken corporate culture and poor management, and will not be solved by additional funding and personnel...."
In short, according to the Senate committee, the CIA suffered from multiple failures of critical thinking. They included overstating evidence; drawing inadequately supported conclusions; ignoring uncertainties; making unwarranted assumptions; engaging in uncritical "groupthink"; minimizing evidence that challenged its assumptions; making judgments based on questionable earlier judgments; and failing to encourage analysts to challenge assumptions or consider alternative arguments.
These mistakes had major consequences, the committee reported, including the mistaken conclusion that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons programs and stockpiles and that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and actively seeking materials for it. However the committee also said that the CIA was correct in its conclusion "that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship" and that "there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an Al Qaeda attack."
Was the Senate committee's criticism unfair?
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that "Some of the committee's findings were useful and constructive. But over all, the report's scathing indictment of American intelligence is seriously unfair" because: 1) "it would have taken an overwhelming body of evidence for any reasonable person in 2002 to think that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons." 2) the intelligence community rightly concluded that any collaboration between Hussein and Al Qaeda was insignificant. The intelligence community's only serious error, O'Hanlon says, was its judgment that Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
"But even on the nuclear issue, enough information was available for others to reach their own assessments," said O'Hanlon. "That the Bush administration had a clear agenda and interpreted all intelligence on Iraq in the most inflammatory way possible was its failing. But members of Congress, including those on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had enough information to reach their own conclusions, and yet the unnecessarily hasty march to war went ahead." (New York Times, 7/13/04)
In October 2002 the Senate by a vote of 77-23 authorized the President to use armed force to (1) "defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq" and 2) enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at disarming Iraq. Most members of the Senate Intelligence Committee voted for this authorization. But the committee's Republican chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, who had been a strong supporter, now says he is not at all sure Congress would have authorized war if members had known of the weaknesses of the pre-war intelligence assessments. The committee's Democratic vice chairman, Senator John Rockefeller of Virginia, who also voted to authorize war, says, "we went to war on false claims" and that he would not have voted for it had he known what he knows now.
A Los Angeles Times report revealed that before this vote all members of the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, received a classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate. But the public learned about the NIE in an unclassified version. The versions are quite different. For example:
Classified version: "Although we have little specific information on Iraq's CW [chemical weapons] stockpile, Saddam probably has stocked a few hundred metric tons of CW agents."
Unclassified version: "Saddam probably has stocked a few hundred metric tons of CW agents."
Classified version: Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents." In a footnote, the US Air Force's director for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, an agency with "primary responsibility for technological analysis of UAV programs," disagreed with the conclusion about UAVs.
Unclassified version: Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents."[This version omits the Air Force director's disagreement.]
During his nationally televised speech on October 7, 2002, President Bush said: "We've also discovered...that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas. We are concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States." Secretary of State Colin Powell made a similar claim in his address to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003.
The Los Angeles Times story also noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee reports that "the classified version presented intelligence findings as assessments, usually beginning with the words 'we assess that,' whereas the white paper [the unclassified version] omitted those words and stated the assessments as facts." (7/10/04)
Richard Kerr, a former director of central intelligence, said that the Senate report "understated the difficulty of the CIA's task in assessing the status of Iraq's illicit weapons program." In his view, the intelligence agency did not have enough information to challenge assumptions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "It was a case of an ounce of information and a ton of analysis." (New York Times, 7/13/04)
Other critics said that the report did not go far enough:
  • Andrew Rosenthal, New York Times (7/18/04): The Senate report "does not tell us what the CIA and other agencies told Mr. Bush before he concluded that Iraq had dangerous weapons and that Saddam Hussein had to go.
  • Senator John Rockefeller (7/9/04): The report "fails to explain the environment of intense pressure in which the intelligence community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq when the most senior officials in the Bush administration had already forcefully and repeatedly stated their conclusions publicly."
Here is what Bush administration officials had to say weeks before the CIA published its National Intelligence Estimate:
  • On August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney told a national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "[We] now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons...Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." And, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."
  • On September 8, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox "News Sunday": "There is no doubt that he [Saddam Hussein] has chemical weapons stocks."
  • On September 12, 2002, President Bush told the United Nations General Assembly: "Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons."
  • On September 25, 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told the PBS "News Hour with Jim Lehrer": There "clearly are contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq...there clearly is testimony that some of the contacts have been important contacts and that there's a relationship here."

For Discussion

  • What is your understanding of each of the Senate committee criticisms of the CIA and other intelligence agencies? For instance, what is does it mean when it says judgments were "overstated," that "assumptions" were not challenged? What does it mean by the term "layering effect?
  • The Senate committee concludes that "a broken corporate culture and poor management" were responsible for "most, if not all" of the CIA's problems. What does this conclusion mean to you?
  • What other possible reasons might there have been for CIA failures?
  • O'Hanlon and Kerr think the Senate report, to some degree, criticizes the CIA unfairly. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with O'Hanlon's comments that the Bush administration "interpreted all intelligence on Iraq in the most inflammatory way possible"? Why or why not? That members of Congress "had enough information to reach their own conclusions"? Why or why not? Consider, in this connection, the different versions of the National Intelligence Estimate.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported that staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee "after a year of investigating...were still trying to get to the bottom of how the key differences between the classified and unclassified versions [of the National Intelligence Estimate] came about." The government routinely classifies information that it regards as too sensitive on national security grounds to be released publicly. Based on what you know of the contents of the two versions of the NIE: If you were a government official who had the appropriate authority, would you have provided the public with a different version than the one provided to members of Congress? If so, why? If not, why do you suppose the government released an unclassified version to the public?
  • What conclusions do Bush administration officials appear to have reached well before the National Intelligence Estimate classified and unclassified reports were issued? Do they support Senator Rockefeller's view that administration comments helped to create an "environment of intense pressure" in which "intelligence community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq"? How? or Why not?


You are a CIA official in 2002. Imagine that your latest reports from field agents on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are the following:
1. A scientist who lived in Iraq until 1985 but now is an Egyptian citizen has kept in touch with fellow scientists in Iraq. One of your agents interviewed this Egyptian scientist yesterday. The scientist told the agent that he had recently received a letter from one of his scientist friends in Iraq that described an unusual amount of activity at a chemical plant near his home in Baghdad.
2. The son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who was in charge of Iraqi WMD programs and who defected to Jordan in 1995 has been interrogated at length by your agents. They report that in repeated questioning the son-in-law insisted that Iraq destroyed all of its WMD after the Gulf War of 1991.
3. A member of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group opposed to Saddam Hussein, reports that he met in London the son of an old Iraqi friend. The son says his father works on a mobile biological lab and that he and other technicians are producing weaponized anthrax (a deadly poison).
4. German intelligence sources report they have evidence that Iraq has been importing aluminum tubes which might be used either for short-range rockets or for enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.
Ask each student-CIA official to write a concise summary of current intelligence on the status of Iraq's WMD program for the President's daily briefing. Student-CIA officials should try to avoid falling into such critical thinking errors as those summarized after item #6 of the Senate report above. Students might consider including the following in their summary:
  • questions that should be raised about an agent's report
  • an assessment of the reliability of each agent's source(s) of information
  • conclusions about the significance of the information being provided to the President.
After students have completed this assignment, divide the class into groups of four to six students to share their papers. Then ask each group to select the one they regard as the best. Then have students read each of the selected papers to the whole class for discussion.

Activity: Opinions and Social Pressures

To the Teacher:
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, intelligence community members suffered from a "groupthink dynamic" that made it very difficult for dissenting views to penetrate the established presumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Students should be familiar with the groupthink dynamic because, whether they realize it or not, they experience it every day. But they probably have not thought much about it as a "dynamic" that affects their daily lives. This exercise is intended to have students not only think about it but also to experience its effects.
In 1955 Solomon Asch wrote "Opinions and Social Pressures" for Scientific American. His article described an experiment which was first used in the Laboratory of Social Relations at Harvard University:
"A group of seven to nine young men, all college students, are assembled in a classroom for a 'psychological experiment' in visual judgment. The experimenter informs them that they will be comparing the lengths of lines. He shows two large white cards. On one is a single vertical black lineóthe standard whose length is to be matched. On the other card are three vertical lines of various lengths. The subjects are to choose the one that is of the same length as the line on the other card. One of the three actually is of the same length; the other two are substantially different, the difference ranging from three quarters of an inch to an inch and three quarters.
"The experiment opens uneventfully. The subjects announce their answers in the order in which they have been seated in the room, and on the first round every person chooses the same matching line. Then a second set of cards is exposed; again the group is unanimous. The members appear ready to endure politely another boring experiment. On the third trial there is an unexpected disturbance. One person near the end of the group disagrees with all the others in his selection of the matching line. He looks surprised, indeed incredulous, about the disagreement. On the following trial he disagrees again, while the others remain unanimous in their choice. The dissenter becomes more and more worried and hesitant as the disagreement continues in succeeding trials; he may pause before announcing his answer and speak in a low voice, or he may smile in an embarrassed way.
"What the dissenter does not know is that all the other members of the group were instructed by the experimenter beforehand to give incorrect answers in unanimity at certain points. The single individual who is not a party to this prearrangement is the focal subject of our experiment. He is placed in a position in which, while he is actually giving the correct answers, he finds himself unexpectedly in a minority of one, opposed by a unanimous and arbitrary majority with respect to a clear and simple fact. Upon him we brought to bear two opposing forces: the evidence of his senses and the unanimous opinion of a group of his peers. Also, he must declare his judgments in public, before a majority which has also stated its position publicly.
"The instructed majority occasionally reports correctly in order to reduce the possibility that the naive subject will suspect collusion against him. (In only a few cases did the subject actually show suspicion; when this happened, the experiment was stopped and the results were not counted.) There are 18 trials in each series, and on 12 of these the majority responds erroneously."
Asch reports further that "whereas in ordinary circumstances individuals matching the lines will make mistakes less than 1 per cent of the time, under group pressure the minority subjects swung to acceptance of the misleading majority's wrong judgments in 36.8 per cent of the selections."

Groupthink Experiment:

To perform this experiment in class, the teacher needs to meet outside of class with at least five or six students to explain the process and its purpose. The easiest way to ensure that on 12 of the 18 trials these students will answer in the same way each time is to have them follow automatically the lead of the first student to answer. The teacher can show the students the set of cards he or she will use in class. These students must not speak to any other students about the experiment and play their role in class seriously.
In class, publicly select the prepared students and one unprepared student to take part in the experiment. (The experiment will take place in front of other students who, like the unprepared student, are learning about it for the first time.) The unprepared student should be placed either last or next-to-last in the lineup of those participating.
Then have the participating students state their judgments about the lines on the cards (following the same process as did the students in the Harvard study).
When the experiment is concluded, explain to the class what really happened and discuss the results.
  • How would you describe the behavior of the unprepared student during the progress of the experiment? How did he or she look? What did he or she say?
  • How do you explain this behavior?
  • How did the unprepared student feel? What was he or she thinking during the experiment?
  • If the unprepared student went along with the incorrect majority, why?
  • What generalizations about opinions and social pressure can you draw from the results of this experiment?
  • Do your generalizations also apply to the members of the intelligence community who, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, behaved the way they did because of a "groupthink dynamic"?
  • Do they also apply to the 77 Senators out of 100 who voted to authorize war on Iraq? Whatever you conclude, what makes you think so?
  • What examples can you cite from your personal experience of this dynamic?

Perhaps a reading of "The Emperor's New Clothes" would be an appropriate conclusion for the session.


To the Teacher:
Parson Weems' cherry tree story about George Washington provides an opportunity for students to consider the reliability and accuracy of printed information.

Reading 2:

Did the boy who became our first president refuse to lie about chopping down a cherry tree?

A year after George Washington's death in 1799, Parson Mason Locke Weems published The Life of Washington. The book was so popular that Weems published new editions in the following years. In the fifth edition of 1806 he included for the first time the cherry tree story, which Weems said was told to him by an "excellent lady."
Weems wrote that when young George was about six years old his father gave him a hatchet for a present. Delighted with this gift, George was soon chopping at everything in his way. One day in the family garden he chopped at the "body of a beautiful young English cherry tree." The next morning George's father saw the tree lying on the ground. Weems then tells the rest of the story as follows:
"George," said his father, "do you know who killed the beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?"
This was a tough question and George staggered under it for a moment, but quickly recovered himself, and looking at his father, with the sweet face of a youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it up with my hatchet."
"Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transport, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree, for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold."

Assignment: Reliability and accuracy

After students have read The Cherry Tree Story, ask them to prepare three questions that if answered well would help them come to a judgment about the reliability and accuracy of the Weems account. Students do not have to be able to answer their questions.
Next, divide the class into groups of four. Ask students to read their questions to each other, discuss them briefly, then decide on the two best questions for consideration by the whole class.
When each group reports, write its questions on the chalkboard without comment. Then have the class analyze each of the questions in the manner described in "the doubting game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," which is available on this website.
Issues that might be addressed include:
  • the source of the story
  • where the "excellent lady" got it from since she was apparently not present
  • the likely accuracy of the dialogue between George and his father and the descriptions of their emotions
  • the overall likelihood of the event itself
  • why Weems did not include this story in his first edition
Each issue should evoke a number of questions. For example, it is unlikely that students can find out the identity of the "excellent lady." What should a reader's reaction be to an historical/biographical account whose source is not named specifically? Why? What problems are there about an unnamed source? Why?
However, students should be able to locate information about Parson Weems from a number of sources. What assessments of his biography of Washington can they find? How is Weems rated as a biographer? Why? Are there differences of opinion about Weems' work? Why or why not? If there are differences of opinion, how would students determine which assessments are the most credible?

To the Teacher:
The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that "the intelligence community suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction program." The committee found that the intelligence community had a strong tendency to ignore evidence that suggested otherwiseóand tended to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting its presumption that Iraq had WMD. All this, the committee said, contributed greatly to inaccurate intelligence findings.
In our everyday lives it is impossible to avoid making or accepting unstated assumptions that may not be correct. If we want to be critical thinkers, we must be awareness of this tendency and learn how detect and analyze assumptions. The following reading focuses on one well-known example from American history of people making unwarranted assumptions. In Salem, Massachusetts unwarranted assumptions led directly to a frenzy over witchcraft and the execution of a number of citizens.

Reading 3:

Possessed by witchcraft or assumptions?

Cotton Mather was a preacher and a scientist in Massachusetts during colonial days. In 1688, he was told that there was a family in his parish whose children suffered from the effects of witchcraft. He took one of the children into his home for observation. Below are some excerpts from Mather's written record of this experience.
"It was the eldest of these children that fell chiefly under my own observation; for I took her home to my own family, partly out of compassion to her parents, but chiefly that I might be a critical eyewitness of things that would enable me to confute the Sadducism* of this debauched age....On November 20, 1688, she cried out, 'Ah they have found me out!' and immediately she fell into her fits; wherein we often observed that she would cough up a ball as big as a small egg, into the side of her windpipe, that would near choke her till by stroking and by drinking it was again carried down.
"When I prayed in the room, first her hands were with a strong, though not even force, clapt upon her ears; and when her hands were by our force pulled away, she cried out, 'They make such a noise, I cannot hear a word!' She complained that Glover's Chain** was upon her leg....When her tortures passed over, still frolics would succeed, wherein she would continue hours, yea, days together, talking perhaps never wickedly but always wittily beyond her self....she frequently told us in these frolics, that if she might but steal or be drunk, she would be well immediately. She told us that she must go down to the bottom of our well (and we had much ado to hinder it) for they said there was plate there, and they would bring her up safely again.
"We wondered at this, for she had never heard of any plate there; and we ourselves, who had newly bought the house, were ignorant of it; but the former owner of the house, just then coming in, told there had been plate for many years lost at the bottom of the well. Moreover, one singular passion that frequently attended her was this:
"An invisible chain would be clapt about her, and she in much pain and fear, cry out when they began to put it on. Sometimes we could with our hands knock it off, as it began to be fastened; but ordinarily, when it was on, she would be pulled out of her seat with such violence, towards the fire, that it was as much as one or two of us could do to keep her out...but she was dragged wholely by other hands. And if we stamped on the hearth just between her and the fire, she screamed out that by jarring the chain we hurt her.
"I may add that they put on an unseen rope, with a cruel noose, about her neck, whereby she was choked until she was black in the face, and though it was got off before it had killed her, yet there were the red marks of it, and of a finger and a thumb near it, remaining to be seen for some while afterwards."
*Mather's term for people who refuse to believe in witches
**Glover was a famous witch
Reprinted in Neil Postman and Howard C. Damon, The Uses of Language
For Discussion
In previous readings students have considered the reliability of a source, the accuracy of information, and the effects of "groupthink." Mather's report raises another pitfall for critical thinkers to avoid: unwarranted assumptions. The Senate committee report also cited unwarranted assumptions as a problem (specifically the assumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction).
  • Which of Mather's statements do you accept as fact? Why?
  • What assumptions does Mather make as he observes the girl?
  • Are any of the assumptions Mather makes supported by facts? If so, which ones and what makes you think they are supported?
  • What do you think caused Mather to confuse fact and assumption?
  • Did the CIA confuse fact and assumption in the case of Iraq? If so what do you think caused the CIA to do this?
  • Does Mather write anything that suggests his observations and comments might be tainted by bias?
  • How do you think the girl's behavior would be classified or explained today? Why?

To the Teacher
This final reading focuses on question-asking and answering as a key element in reaching sound judgments.

Reading 4:

If you don't ask good questions, how can you get good answers?

Making sound judgments can be difficult. The CIA had a great deal of information from many sources but apparently few, if any, of its own agents as first-hand sources inside Iraq. The agency was working on a very controversial issue in a highly charged political atmosphere within the United States as well as within the United Nations. There were technical considerations, national security considerations, disagreements within the wider intelligence community, and, in the view of many critics, pressure on the CIA to reach conclusions that would support a decision to go to war on Iraq that the Bush administration had made months before the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002.
Nor is making a sound judgment easy when, as in the lines experiment, one is confronted with opposing views from colleagues and friends. Peer pressure can be powerful. And making a sound judgment on the reliability of a biography or an apparently scientific report of observations can be difficult, too. How can we be sure that the biographer is reporting accurately? How can we know whether the scientist's observations are affected by personal beliefs or desires?
On complex public issues like whether or not the US should go to war, many people are inclined to leave the decision-making to public officials and experts. But public officials and experts, though they may have more information than the rest of us, are human beings, and, like all human beings, often wrong. A substantial majority were wrongóand not just in the USóon one or more of three key issues during the lead-up to the US attack on Iraq: they were wrong in their judgment that Iraq had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons; that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program; and that a working partnership existed between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
All of this suggests that we need to cultivate within ourselves a high degree of informed skepticism about "authoritative" statements made by experts and public officials, especially when they seem to be absolutely certain in their judgments. But this skepticism needs to be informed by critical thinking skills that enable us to test what we are hearing, seeing, and reading. One such key skill is questioning.
We often need an expert judgment on an issue but should not accept it automatically. What are the expert's qualifications? Are there any reasons to suspect bias? For example, is there anything in the expert's political, economic, social, or religious background that suggests a reason for bias? What might he or she gain by taking a certain position?
We can raise the same questions about a public official's position on an issue. Most elected public officials want to be reelected. Is the official's judgment tainted to some degree by the need to win the support of certain voters? Or to win the essential contributions for an election campaign from special interests? Politicians are also usually members of a political party. Is a judgment or a vote prejudiced by a trade-off? For instance, perhaps if the official doesn't support a bill, others won't support a bill the official wants passed. Or maybe if the official doesn't support the bill, she can forget about getting construction money for a road that will win her votes in her district.
Other key skills include:
1) knowing how to find answers to our questions
2) knowing how to test the answers we get by asking and answering yet other questions, such as:
  • How reliable is this source, whether it be a website, a newspaper article, a biography, a chapter in a book, a TV commentator?
  • Whose viewpoint are we reading, hearing, or seeing?
  • Is there reason to believe that this website or that author come to an issue with a partisan agenda?
  • How convincing and how objectively stated is the information for support of any opinions?
  • Are viewpoints opinionated and expressed in sweeping generalizations that don't stand up to scrutiny?
  • Are information and opinion presented logically? in a balanced manner? fairly?
  • Do we suspect the omission of important information?
  • Of course, even the detection of some reason for bias does not mean that the expert's or the official's views are worthless. But it does mean that we should keep them in mind as we form our own views.
It may be harder to discover reasons for bias in ourselves, but it is at least as necessary. Ask yourself the same kinds of questions you might ask of another, then answer those questions.
Read the following judgments by two well-known public officials who are also politicians. Then:
1) Write one good question about each. A "good question," in this context, is one which, if answered well, would lead you to a more informed judgment about the soundness of the opinion stated in it.
2) Explain how you would go about answering your questions and why you think the process you outline makes sense.
"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons, I believe we were right to go into Iraq. America is safer today because we did. We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
—President George W. Bush, 7/9/04
"...The committee's report fails to fully explain the environment of intense pressure in which the intelligence community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq when the most senior officials in the Bush administration had already...made up their mind that they were going to go to war...[Their] relentless public campaign prior to the war... repeatedly characterized the Iraqi weapons programs in more ominous and threatening terms than any intelligence would have allowed. In short, we went to war based on false claims."
—Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (Democrat), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, 7/9/04
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: