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The power in welcoming alternative views

President Trump’s first official trip was to the CIA, an agency trained to encourage dissent about intelligence information but one that must also ‘face hard truths’ about itself.

President Donald Trump, background, speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Jan. 21.
AP Photo | Caption
  • By the Monitor's Editorial Board

For his first official trip outside the White House, President Trump decided to meet with some 400 officers at the Central Intelligence Agency. His visit was the first of several the President plans to make to federal departments and agencies. But it may be one of his most important. Perhaps no other part of government has had to learn the value of encouraging differing points of views – and then listening to them – than the CIA.

A core strength of democratic government lies in its humility to welcome alternative ideas, even to pursue them. This can help prevent self-reinforcing group-think. In its spy work, the CIA often sets up two or more teams to analyze a tough foreign situation. The teams are charged to challenge each other’s assumptions and facts. The process helps to work against inherent biases and allows a deeper understanding of reality.

In a speech last year, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained that the world today is too unpredictable to rely on one person’s views. Two-thirds of the world’s nations are at some risk of instability. Specifics are difficult to pin down. Yet a commander-in-chief needs specifics with a great degree of certainty.

The work of intelligence agencies, said Mr. Clapper, depends on analysis “as free of bias as we can get,” forcing officers to look at information from a variety of views. Disagreements are encouraged, especially in pointing out “things we don’t know.”

For those purposes, Clapper led an effort to have the intelligence agencies hire people with differing life experiences. And he ordered training for senior officers on ways to overcome unconscious bias.

If the intelligence community is charged with speaking truth to power, he said, “we’d better be able to face hard truths about ourselves.”

Members of Trump’s national security team understand the need for patience in hearing out those who disagree with them. Defense Secretary James Mattis says the process of making decisions on security matters will not be tidy, but “it’ll be respectful – of that I’m certain – and I don’t anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win.”

Trump’s trips to federal offices should probably include the Federal Reserve and Supreme Court. Those parts of the central government rely especially on collective discussion and voting but with rules and a culture that welcome ideas being questioned. They try to avoid the dangers of being isolated from facts, of surrounding one’s self with people willing to please rather than challenge, and of shutting down a discussion by labeling opponents.

Dissent has been the strength of democracies, even to the point of armies defending everyone’s right to free speech. And the best leaders know that active encouragement of differences is a source of order, not a threat.