9/11 Accountability


It goes without saying that responsibility for 9/11 rests solely with the murderous terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks.

But here's an AP piece about government accountability regarding 9/11 by Pauline Jelinek that's worth pondering as Condoleezza Rice testifies to today before the independent commission investigating how U.S. security was breached so badly.


In the two and a half years since al-Qaida terrorists hijacked airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 Americans, there have been no announced firings, demotions or resignations at the CIA, FBI, immigration service, White House, State Department, Pentagon or any other federal agency….

"If you were in the private sector and you failed this colossally, you probably would be looking for a different job," said [Lorie] Van Auken, whose husband, Kenneth, died in the World Trade Center.

Not so in government. That's because the founding fathers' version of an orderly, accountable federal work force has mutated into a bureaucracy in which problems become systemic and nobody is held responsible, said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.

"If you look at the big government mistakes of the last 50 years, you will always find systemic underpinnings—taxpayers' abuse at IRS, the Challenger or Columbia disasters at NASA, missing laptops at Los Alamos," said Light, also a Brookings Institution scholar.

"The layers of career officials and political officials have never been deeper. … Interagency confusion continues. It's very difficult to hold anybody responsible for what goes right or wrong in this hierarchy," he said.

Whole thing here.

NEXT: Wild in the Streets

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  1. Joe – NASA bureaucrats (not engineers – they don’t comunicate with the White House, believe me – NASA’s got 100s upon 100s of paper pushers who are more than happy to do that) being in touch with the White House doesn’t bolster your position in the least. They didn’t go to the White House and say “Our engineers and those who built the SRBs are warning us not to launch and we’re going to scrub.” Regean: “You better not. Launch damn it, I need dead bodies to slake my thirst for human flesh!” Any fault (I don’t think this failure falls entirely under the rubric of space flight is dangerous, you take your chances. That’s certainly true, but this was a demonstratable failure mode brought up by the very people who built the thing) lies with the NASA chain of command that valued appearance over substance and had promised what was not deliverable with the shuttle program. To try and lay this at the feet of Ronald Reagan simply illustrates where you’re coming from (partisan hack) and gives pause to any charitable interprestation of positions you stake out.

  2. Kwais-
    The Saudis are also the ones funding the madrassas training the fanatics in the first damned place. They’re the ones who supported the Taliban government in Afghanistan (not to mention having been the first government to formally recognize them). They’re the ones giving the Wahhabis power to dictate Arabian culture. Right now Prince Bandar himself is stonewalling demands to check out certain financial ties he had with terrorist groups.

    If my entire backyard is a maggot-infested shitheap which I refuse to clean out, I do not deserve any kudos for ostentatiously swatting a ceremonial fly each day.

  3. Karl–

    Right on.


    Can you imagine Roger Boisjoly (one of the NASA engineers in question, and one of the most vocal), calling up the White House and saying, “Hello? Put me through to the Big Man, I’ve got concerns about the shuttle launch tomorrow. No, I won’t hold, dammit!”

    The blame for the launch decision rests squarely on the heads of the NASA and Shuttle program management who candy-coated the risks, and never mentioned the specific problems that were well-known to SRB engineers for months prior to the loss of Challenger to the Admin. Really, do you think that Administration officials would have been keeping up on the esoteric engineering details of o-ring seals on shuttle motors?

  4. Actually, I believe Dr. Boisjoly was the engineer I’ve seen describing his repeated, rebuffed attempts to get the White House to scrap the launch.

    But that’s really neat how adding irrelevant, cartoonish events to someone’s argument makes it seem less credible. I must not have read that particular treatise. Aquinas or Aristotle?

  5. karl,
    Thank you.

    You need to come up for air. The culture of bureaucratic mismanagement at NASA was well documented by the Rogers Commission. The White House didn’t have diddily to say about whether it was safe to launch. It’s ridiculous to condemn the president for not being in intimate contact with NASA engineers and failing to override the advice of layers of management.

    The real tragedy, is that after the mismanagement culture was exposed, it was left in place.

  6. Well joe, if you don’t see the silliness of posting a statement like ‘NASA engineers repeated, rebuffed attempts to get the White House to scrub the launch’… I should just let it drop.

  7. I don’t see the silliness. I’ve seen the engineers describe the attempt, Karl.

  8. joe –
    Roger Boisjoly was an engineer with Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the design and manufacture of the SRBs. He and engineers at Thiokol had been tracking problems with the o-rings in low temperatures for some time. At a telecon between NASA management, Thiokol management and engineers at Thiokol, the engineers specifically stated there was a danger given the low temperatures expected at launch, one they couldn’t quantify, but the parameters were well outside any previous launch parameters and they had strong evidence of near failures at low temperatures during previous launches. During this telecon, we get the famous “when do you want me to launch, next April” and allusions to a new contractor for SRBs from NASA management. NASA wanted to launch. Thiokol management wanted to please NASA and so ignored their engineering team and gave a go for launch.

    No where in this sequence of events is an engineer, NASA or otherwise, trying frantically to get the White House to scrub a launch. It just doesn’t work that way. The White House is not in on a go/no-go call, period. Doesn’t happen. Now, repeated launch delays and things of that nature will very well bring presure onto NASA bureaucrats – “get your act together, or we’ll remember come budget time” and rightly so. That’s very different from insisting on a launch under unsafe conditions – they have no say and aren’t consulted on the matter. The insuation you were making was that NASA engineers tried in vain to get the White House to scrub – that’s absurd on it’s face, because the White House has absolutely no say on the matter. NASA feeling general presure to maintain a launch schedule is a different matter, but that’s a very different issue from any input on a given launch descision. NASA bureaucrats were responsible for presuring Thiokol management who caved and went over their engineers heads. NASA promised something on a platform that was not capable of delivering and rather than say “we screwed up, let’s fix it” they decided to keep the money flow going and fly on luck. Well, physics don’t do luck.

  9. This whole “accountability” thing makes little sense to me.

    One: I heard nothing this morning save what a “central”, “pre-eminent” and UNSURPASSABLE terrorism advisor Clarke was…so logically, is it HIS head that should roll? Hell…he even copped to it with his maudlin apology, didn’t he?

    Two: Will it make anyone feel safer to bounce a thousand guys out of our security apparatus. Even if it didn’t make me feel LESS safe, I don’t think I’ll be saying “There, that’s done– now I can relax.”

    Three: It seems to assume things about government prescience we should NEVER assume and NEVER expect.

  10. joe,

    “Actually, I believe Dr. Boisjoly was the engineer I’ve seen describing his repeated, rebuffed attempts to get the White House to scrap the launch.”

    Again, I say read the Rogers Commision Report, and while you’re at it, read this:


    You’ll find that, in Boisjoly’s own account, there was no instance of him attempting to contact the White House.

    “But that’s really neat how adding irrelevant, cartoonish events to someone’s argument makes it seem less credible. I must not have read that particular treatise. Aquinas or Aristotle?”

    Nope. Never EVER seen it done before. Made it up myself. That’s why I’ll be a famous thinker someday.

    The “cartoonish” quality of my imagined one-sided phone conversation aside, it is still absurd to imagine that a NASA (or contractor’s) engineer could get in touch with “The White House” to try to affect a decision like this, especially on such short notice. I fail to see how illustrating the futility of such an action could possibly be irrelevant to the subject.

  11. But if there were mass firings, there would be no cynical mutterings about “fall guys” and “passing the buck”? It’s almost impossible to pin the blame on any one person in our massive government bureaucracy, short of a verifiable, treasonable offense.

  12. The Space Shuttle disaster isn’t a good example. The NASA bureaucrats wanted to keep Challenger grounded. They knew it was dangerous, but they were overridden by the White House. Reagan needed a press event.

    He got it.

  13. I know I will be voting for a firing come this november!

  14. Have a hankering to commit the perfect crime(s)?
    Become a bureaucrat!

  15. Reagan commanded Challeger to fly?

  16. Challe^n^ger.

  17. JAR, the mission was scheduled. NASA asked to delay the mission for the second or third time. The White House said no.

    So, technically, he didn’t command it to fly; he refused to command it not to fly.

  18. I’m listening to Condi now. So far she’s said she was out of the loop on planes being used as missiles and it’s the system’s fault.

  19. Gadfly,
    If Condi was out of the loop, Clarke must have been in Siberia!

  20. Bob Kerry is kicking Condi’s ass. Tune in.

  21. joe,

    If the Administration at the time of the Challenger disaster had been told by the people at NASA who had access to them that according to the best engineering information they had, it was not safe to fly the shuttle at temperatures less than 53deg F, do you think that it would have flown?

    It is precisely because the mission management refused to back up the engineers and take their concerns to the administration that the mission was flown. No one in the Administration said, “dammit, you will fly this mission regardless of the engineers’ concerns.” The managers took it upon themselves to quash engineering concerns and present a rosy picture.

    Read the Rogers Commission report, especially this section:


  22. The thing I see in Bob Kerry’s line of questioning, and in Dick Clark’s book is that they try to put a huge spin on the 8 years of not dealing with terrorists. And then they try in the same breath to say that Bush’s having not completely changed the national strategy in his months in office is criminally negligent. That is ridiculous.

  23. To legitimately fire someone for the failure of 9/11 we would have to point to some violation of policy, rules or law that the individual committed. The real problem of 9/11 was that government employees did follow the rules they had been given.

    The FBI and other law enforcement did not share information with the CIA, just as the law mandated. The flight crews of the air craft surrender control of their planes to the terrorist without fight just as the law required. The terrorist with visa violations were not pursued just as it was policy not to pursue the hundreds of thousands of others with visa violations. It would have also been illegal to concentrate on visa violations of young single males of middle east origins. I could go on.

    The failure in 9/11 lay not in the bureaucrats, officers and agents. Instead it lay in broad policy and law that we collectively built up over the last 30 years. As a polity, we did not take the threat of mass-casualty terrorism seriously. Many of us still don’t.

  24. Shannon Love,

    So do you want a Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire?

  25. Here’s a statistic I already posted on another thread: the Republicans gave Ken Starr 70 million dollars to investigate what went wrong with Bill Clinton’s real estate deals and sex life; the 9-11 commission got 15 million dollars to investigate what went wrong with National Security (and they had to practically beg for it). Thus we see that from a Republican standpoint, Democratic adultery is 466% more offensive than the mass murder of 3000 Americans.

  26. Sorry: make that “Democtaric adultery and failed real-estate investments.”

  27. During her testimony Rice admitted that right after 9/11, when they were trying to figure out how to respond, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were “asking about looking into Iraq”.

    From the other accounts, that would be like how a starving man asks about “looking into food”.

  28. kwais,
    The difference is Clinton understood what Clarke was saying. Clinton didn’t choose to do anything meaningful to act on it.
    Bush had no clue what Clarke was saying, while his wise, old advisors/ handlers were consumed by keeping Clarke out of the loop.

  29. The problem Light describes is not exactly new. People were talking about the executive bureaucracy as a “fourth branch of government” back in the 1950s.

    There is no question that inertia, the strongest force in human affairs as in the physical world, is a very strong force in government. Set a government department off in one direction, and it will continue in that direction indefinitely other things being equal. Great events like 9/11 and Pearl Harbor concerted effort by unusually talented officials at lower levers can make “other things” be unequal and spur change that way, but the latter circumstance is uncommon and the former (change prompted by disaster) is not really what we want. And, considering the potential for government to do harm, there are advantages to departments or groups of departments not being able to abruptly change policies on their own.

    But it is worth remembering Harry Truman’s curt dismissal of the “4th branch of government” theory. Truman, believed that a President who knew his own mind could overpower any amount of bureaucratic resistance. This is still true (President Bush’s driving of the notoriously risk-averse uniformed military leadership into a major war is one example), with obvious qualifications relating to the finite amount of time any President has to deal with individual issues or departments. The great difficulty today is precisely that Presidents consumed with the mechanics of the permanent campaign have very little time to challenge resistance from the bureaucracy to his ideas for change, assuming he has any. And he may not, for the same reason.

    This is not a complete explanation for the government’s failure to timely react to the growing terrorist menace. Any system that put a man like Bill Clinton in the White House was going to get a President averse to making decisions that involved political risk; any system with George Bush as chief executive would get a leader prone to avoid subjects that involved much work for him personally. But abler men than these would operate under the same handicap — the business of electing officials to public office in this country is overwhelming the business of government. As long as this is true, inertia will be king.

  30. just as sending off american men and women to die under false pretenses is merely genius at work for republican supporters.

    a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker is a bootlicker

  31. Ruthless,
    care to go a little more into detail? Why were they trying to keep Clark out of the looP? And in your opinion which is worse?

  32. Kwais-
    The alleged rape wasn’t proven. If it’s real, however, I’d still say that the rape of a single woman is less evil than the death of 3000 people. I would also say that the amount of money spent to investigate the mass death should be at least EQUAL to that spent on the rape investigation.

    Of course, maybe that’s because when it comes to 9-11, I have nothing to hide.

  33. Joe – Engineers at Thaikol and at NASA knew of the dangers and had passed them up the line. Bureaucrats at NASA pushed back and decided on the wrong side of the risk-benifit analysis. As irrational as your hatred of Repubs is, to blame Reagan for the decisions of entrenched bureaucrats at NASA is pretty weak. The Challenger descision can be laid squarely at the feet of a chain of bad descisions by NASA big-wigs, not the least of which was the pursual of the space shuttle to the degreee they did. The bureaucrats at NASA had all the wrong incentives in place with regard to the shuttle. But if it makes you feel better to blame Reagan… Maybe he was responsible for the flooding in upper Patagonia in ’87 as well.

  34. Just read Rice’s opening statemnt at http://www.boston.com

    She spends an awful lot of time “clearing up misconceptions” that look a lot more like matters of opinion.

    And it takes a lot of sack to follow up a statement about Bush choosing to fight terrorism by transforming the Muslim world with praise for Saudi Arabia.

  35. Jennifer,
    My understanding is that the 911 comission is not to find guilt of the people who committed the acts of terrorism, nor even to find fault in the federal agencies, but instead is a partisan political group out to find fault in the President. I really have to admit that I dont know enough about it to say for sure whether it is valid and should have had more money.

    But I can address your dismissal of Clintons misdeeds as adultery. Rape is generally very hard to prove, and there is even lots of controversy over the guilt or innocence of a few convicted rapists, ie Mike Tyson. However, from what I have heard the charges against Clinton were as good as any out there.

  36. Joe-
    Remember, the Saudis are the GOOD America-hating Muslim fundamentalist fanatics; not like those BAD America-hating Muslim fanatics who haven’t invested shitloads of money in various Bush family enterprises.

  37. Joe,
    The Saudis have been doing pretty good at hunting down the terrorists lately. Much more because of the bombings in May than because of 911.

    They Saudi Security forces have been getting in firefights with Al Qaida types on a weekly basis. They don’t win a lot of the firefights, but they are clearly weakening the present network in Saudi Arabia.

  38. Kwais et al-
    I hear a lot of people claiming the 9-11 commission is merely partisan crap (kinda like the Starr chamber) but seriously, why? Other than wanting to interview people Bush wants kept silent, what are they doing that is so partisan? This is a sincere question.

  39. How did we get from the 9/11 accountability to arguing over rape allegations against Clinton?

  40. kwais,
    I don’t know why Rummy and Cheney wanted to keep Clarke out of the loop, but comparing Bush to Clinton, I’d think they were concerned about blowing a fuse in Bush’s gray matter.

  41. What I’ve seen of the commision make me think it’s a complete joke. They alternate between Bush hacks in, for lack of a better term, Clinton hacks. One says “Wasn’t the previous administration really going after it? and why didn’t you fix everything in the 230 days you had? Why did President Bush order the attacks on the Trade Center?” and then we go to the other side; “You guys have done wonders fixing the incompetence of the previous administration. Please tell us about how you’re doing that.” Granted this is just the public face, maybe behind close doors they’re actually being constructive. But it sure looks like a bunch of partisan hack on both sides, doing damage control for their side and trying to damage the other. Frankly, if that’s the reality, we shouldn’t be spending squat on it, let alone 15Mil.

  42. Karl, top NASA engineers were in touch with the White House prior to the launch, but the White House decided to side with the bureaucrats. Now, maybe this resulted from a heretofore unknown Reaganite love of civil servants, but I doubt it.

    “The Saudis have been doing pretty good at hunting down the terrorists lately. Much more because of the bombings in May than because of 911. They Saudi Security forces have been getting in firefights with Al Qaida types on a weekly basis. They don’t win a lot of the firefights, but they are clearly weakening the present network in Saudi Arabia.”

    This seems to be the administration’s position as well. Doesn’t this directly contradict Dr. Rice’s assertions that the fight against terrorism is more about transforming bassackwards Muslim tyrannies, than mere police and intelligence operations aimed at specific terrorists?

    It’s ok for them to keep breeding extremism, as long as they swat flies for us, eh Condi?

  43. Shuttle too dangerous? for whom?

    China would buy the remaining shuttles
    and NASA and fly them tomorrow.

    SPACE flight is DANGEROUS!

  44. “Can you tell me one example where the president swatted a fly when it came to Al Qaida prior to 9/11… We only swatted a fly once on the 20th of August 1998. We didn’t swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?” — Bob Kerry to Condi Rice.

  45. Joe,
    The Saudis have been doing pretty good at hunting down the terrorists lately. Much more because of the bombings in May than because of 911.

    They Saudi Security forces have been getting in firefights with Al Qaida types on a weekly basis. They don’t win a lot of the firefights, but they are clearly weakening the present network in Saudi Arabia.

  46. Amy-

    In your post you state the obvious. The fact that the American public knows not the real truth in the decision to stomp out an “immenent threat” is bull shit spoon fed to the American public and the world for that matter. The Bush administration i believe has other plans in mind that will benefit in one way or another.

  47. I’m not a dove; rather, I’m somebody who felt we needed to do something substantive to stem terrorism in the middle east. That said, I read the newspaper and a wide variety of Internet news and blog sources, and I still don’t understand why we responded to an Al Qaeda attack by going into Iraq and waging war on Saddam and co. To me, it’s a little like dealing with a wart on your left finger by cutting off your right foot. Now that we are in in Iraq, I think it’s a good thing that Saddam won’t be continuing his mass-murderous reign — but there are a lot of places of horror around the globe — Rwanda for one — that we aren’t marching into. Perhaps there’s some wise world historian/political theorist here who can make it all come clear for me — because any which way I slice our assault on Iraq as a response to 9-11, it comes up spurious.

  48. The guy who squelched the Minneapolis agent’s pleas to do something about Massaui (the supposed 19th highjacker who was learning to fly but not take off) was actually promoted.

    Andrew would be proud.

  49. Watching the old white men grandstand,
    I could hear 5% of the black vote,
    the vote the democrats own 92% of,
    slipping over to Bush in November.

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