Taking Responsibility Lightly

When government officials are "accountable"


Don't you just love it when federal officials and politicians "take responsibility" for some screw-up or other? It sounds so adult, so moral, so inspiring of confidence. But hold on just a minute: What does "taking responsibility" really mean?

You'll recall that way back in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno took responsibility for the federal massacre of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. "I made the decision," Reno said at her news conference after the Waco bonfire. "I'm accountable. The buck stops with me." On the ABC News program Nightline when host Ted Koppel noted that in many European countries a Cabinet minister would resign as a way to accept responsibility for a major failure, Reno had the sense to reply, "If that's what the president wants, I'm happy to do so."

However, by merely saying that she took responsibility, Reno managed to get the national press corps, weary of covering the routine twists, turns and excuses of scapegoating officials, to swoon. For example, just as the ATF and FBI were closing in with their tanks and tear gas at Waco, President Bill Clinton bravely declared, "I was aware of it. I think the attorney general made the decision." He added, "I knew it was going to be done but the decisions were entirely theirs." Meanwhile, FBI director William Sessions flat out said that he didn't plan to offer his resignation over the Waco massacre, period.

However, while Time and The Washington Post were publishing glowing encomiums to Reno, media maven Mickey Kaus, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got it right back in May, 1993:

[S]he made a disastrous decision that resulted in the loss of more than 70 lives. Then she accepted "responsibility." In a bizarre bit of political alchemy, this somehow protected her from suffering any of the consequences that normally attend disastrously handled responsibilities. Far from restoring accountability, Reno seems to have hit on the formula for avoiding it. Make a dreadful mistake? Go immediately on "Nightline." Say the buck stops with you. Recount in moving human terms the agony of your decision. And watch your polls rise. Truman plus Donahue equals Absolution.

This "alchemy" of avoiding responsibility has not gone unnoticed by subsequent officials who have turned out to be appallingly bad managers. Two recent examples are former CIA director George Tenet and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Concerning the intelligence failures prior to the 9/11 atrocities, Tenet told a Congressional panel in 2002, [I]f anyone is going to take responsibility, I take responsibility." In 2003, Tenet grudgingly took responsibility for vetting the dubious claim made by President Bush in his State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had been seeking to purchase uranium from Niger.

Of course, Tenet just retired from the CIA in July 2004. "It was a personal decision, and had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less," declared Tenet. Even if Bush did quietly push Tenet out that defeats the whole purpose of forcing someone who messes up to resign publicly. Heads must roll so that other responsible officials see the consequences of failure. As Voltaire wrote in Candide: "[D]ans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.")

Regarding the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "These events occurred on my watch. As Secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility." And well he might. Last month a panel handpicked by Rumsfeld to look into the abuses at Abu Ghraib found "institutional and personal responsibility right up the chain of command as far as Washington is concerned." Yet when asked if Rumsfeld should resign, Jimmy Carter's former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger said, "His resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies." Nevertheless, a lot of people are calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, and not just for the Abu Ghraib fiasco. So far… Nada, Zilch, Nothing.

Finally, when asked in 2003 about the notorious claim about Iraq purchasing African uranium, President George Bush himself declared, "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course."

Don't get me started.