"Accepts Responsibility" Means Nothing

|

Just before the Congressional hearing yesterday about the many drastic failures in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said that he "accepts responsibility." His exact words from the PBS NewsHour are:

I want to be clear. As the secretary of homeland security, I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department—good and bad.

I long for the days when an official "accepting responsibility" meant that he or she resigned and let some more competent person take over. Incompetent Bush administration officials are particularly adept at "accepting responsibility" without consequences to themselves.

Secretary Chertoff: Step down and leave town if you really mean to "accept responsibility," otherwise just please keep your mouth shut.

NEXT: Cowboys Eating Pudding

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I seem to remember Janet Reno “accepting responsibility” for Waco as well, but she kept her job. It’s just another empty Washington formula that fools no one. (Just as, if the fallout is really bad, you’ll resign not because of your incompetence, but because you need to spend more time with your family.)

  2. I wish it were this easy for the rest of us – “Yes, officer, I accept responsibility for that bag of weed. Now that that’s settled, I’m going home.”

  3. It is my understanding that Janet Reno offered her resignation to Bill Clinton and he refused it.

    But I don’t think he publicly said anything like, “y’r doin’ a hechuva job, ….”. 🙂

  4. heckuva…dammit!

  5. The scary part is that saying “my bad” is actually an improvement over recent history.

  6. I want to know what FEMA’s role is supposed to be, so we can figure out what they did wrong. It seems to me that a big part of the problem was an accountability gap between the feds and everyone else.

    I don’t buy that FEMA is responsible for evacuation, for example. That makes no sense at all. My impression previous to Katrina was that FEMA was a bunch of check-writers after the fact. Everyone else seems to disagree, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a detailed analysis of what FEMA was supposed to do.

  7. As some have already noted, this “accepting responsibility” without consequences BS has been around for a while. Bovard’s “Terrorism and Tyrrany” traces it back to Reagan’s administration (where responsibility was accepted for the Beirut bombing by promoting those who accepted it), at least, and it has continued in every administration since then. So I’m not quite sure what days Ron is pining for.

  8. Chertoff is almost universally regarded by those who know him as one of the most intelligent and competent individuals serving in government. When he agreed to take the job at Homeland Security, he was widely seen as seriously overqualified. Removing a person from a job as a punishment for bad behavior makes absolutely no sense. You remove a person from a job when you think someone else can do it better. Mistakes on the job might be persuasive evidence that someone else could do it better, but it’s not conclusive. If Chertoff goes, there is no way him replacement would be as good.

    The only punishment that Chertoff should face for his role in Katrina is a little public shaming. He’s done that. Let’s move on.

  9. The Romans knew how to deal with ineptitude. A consul, C. Hostilius Mancinus, went to Spain to fight the Celtiberians. He ended up surrendering an army of 20,000 to them due to his incompetence. The Romans repudiated the terms of the surrender and sent Mancinus back–naked–to the enemy.

    I’m not saying that we should send Chertoff to New Orleans naked and in chains, but I’m not saying that we shouldn’t, either 🙂

  10. That was a joke, by the way. I have no idea whether Chertoff is competent or not. Though apologies without accountability bore me, too.

  11. Also, if Chertoff arrived in NO naked & in chains during Mardi Gras, no one would notice anyway.

  12. Oh, yeah. Good point. Maybe Baton Rouge would be better?

  13. McArthur accepted responsibility for the loosing the Philippines, but was still kept on much to the good of the country. I don’t think there should be a universal rule that every time someone in a high position makes a mistake no matter how grave, they are automatically fired. Not only does that rob the government of competent people, since even the best people make mistakes, but also it creates an environment where no one is willing to step forward and take charge because they know if they make a mistake their careers will be over.

    Before demanding Chertoff’s head, I think we owe ourselves the answers to a few questions.

    1. In what sense was Chertoff really responsible for Katrina other than being the guy in charge? Were his mistakes directly responsible for FEMA’s failings or was he let down by his subordinates?

    2. The Secretary of DHS has a lot of other duties beyond supervising FEMA and responding to hurricanes, is there any evidence that Chertoff is not up to those responsibilities and if so what is that?

    3. Does Chertoff have a grasp of the problems within FEMA and DHS, whatever those may be, and is he in a position to fix them?

    4. Who do you propose to replace Chertoff and what reason do you have for believing that that person will necessarily do a better job than Certoff?

    Until you answer those questions, I don’t think you are in a position to give an intelligent answer to whether Chertoff should be fired. Without those answers you are left to doing what Bailey engages in which is the ip so facto conclusion that since Chertoff works for Bush and something bad happened, he must be fired.

  14. “Removing a person from a job as a punishment for bad behavior makes absolutely no sense. You remove a person from a job when you think someone else can do it better. Mistakes on the job might be persuasive evidence that someone else could do it better, but it’s not conclusive. If Chertoff goes, there is no way him replacement would be as good.

    “The only punishment that Chertoff should face for his role in Katrina is a little public shaming. He’s done that. Let’s move on.”

    Removing a person from a job as punishment for failing that job is, um, perfectly sensible. This isn’t just about this current situation, FXKLM, just like the death penalty isn’t just about the particular crime committed. It’s also about setting an example, about deterring future fuckups. If you create a political culture where the only consequences for failure is “a little bit of public shaming”, then what explicit incentive will others have in the future to avoid similar failure?

    Perhaps losing his/her job entirely is a bit harsh, depending on the situation, but it’s simply ignorant to claim that firing someone for fucking up is not sensible…and it’s also ignorant to think that “a little public shaming” is enough to keep future potential fuckups from fucking up.

  15. Good points all, John. But Bailey isn’t saying point-blank that Chertoff “must be fired.” He’s saying that his acceptance of responsibility is meaningless without consequences. Just mouthing the word “responsibility” is nothing more than “look at me I’m exhibiting professionalism!” self-congratulation.

  16. Without those answers you are left to doing what Bailey engages in which is the ip so facto conclusion that since Chertoff works for Bush and something bad happened, he must be fired.

    Actually, I think Ron only that he should resign, if he was actually “accepting responsibility,” and that the phrase doesn’t mean anything if you’re not willing to act on it. That’s rather a different thing.

    If Chertoff feels he wasn’t responsible for the mistakes made (and it’s possible he wasn’t), he should have the courage to explain why he wasn’t responsible instead of mouthing worthless platitudes. If he actually does think he was responsible, then resigning would be somewhat honorable.

  17. Jason Ligon,
    Yes, that`s what I knew of FEMA in the past, check writers following after a disaster. The new FEMA will have a 1500 man force ready at all times to bring you an umbrella if it begings to rain and you are to stupid to head for cover. They will know best how to confront you “emergency” situation. Thank god for the Government!!!

  18. What’s FEMA doing in the DHS anyway?

  19. What’s FEMA doing in the DHS anyway?

    It’s part of the War on Weather.

  20. I have no particular opinion on whether Chertoff deserves any sort of punishment. I don’t know enough about the responsibility flow chart of FEMA and DHS and who was actually expected to do what and who failed to do what was previously set out.

    There is actually some sense in a person accepting responsibility without immediate consequences: If a subordinate screws up, that doesn’t necessarily mean the boss also screwed up. Otherwise every mistake at the bottom of the ladder would set in motion a chain of resignations going all the way to the top.

    However, if a subordinate screws up then the boss does have a responsibility to take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That probably means finding a more responsible subordinate and setting things straight so people are prepared the next time.

    If he is responsible for what previously happened then he should accept some sort of consequence beyond public shaming. But if his only responsibility is to make sure the screw-up isn’t replicated in the future, then he should say “This won’t happen again, here’s how I’m going to make sure of it, and if I fuck up on this then I’ll resign.”

    Anyway, accepting responsibility for what happens next would require something more meaningful than just an embarrassing statement on camera followed by business as usual. But that doesn’t seem to be one of the recognized options in government. Instead, the recognized options are:

    1) Blame somebody else while patting yourself on the back.
    2) “Resign to spend more time with family”, and a replacement who doesn’t actually change anything.
    3) Openly fired (rare), with a replacement who doesn’t actually change anything.
    4) Some sort of meaningless “I take full responsibility” speech, but nothing changes.

    I’d be just as happy to leave the guy in place if he could explain what will be done better next time. And if that explanation doesn’t just involve “We will spend more money.”
    4)

  21. “In what sense was Chertoff really responsible for Katrina other than being the guy in charge?”

    Is this a joke?

    “The Secretary of DHS has a lot of other duties beyond supervising FEMA and responding to hurricanes, is there any evidence that Chertoff is not up to those responsibilities and if so what is that?”

    Is this a joke?

  22. Knowing a little bit about government, I think it’s pretty clear what went wrong with the government’s response: no one took over, and created order out of chaos. When there is a situation of this magnitude, the number of people running around getting in each others’ way is amazing. In an emergency situation, all the running around and getting in each others’ way becomes faster, louder, and more jumbled. There needs to be some executive authority imposed.

    By about Day 2, somebody with enough clout to make people listen to him should have been yelling things like “Get these god damn trailers out of here!” and “Get that asshole with the helicopters on the phone!” No one did that – not Chertoff, not Rumsfeld, not Bush. As Chertoff said today in his hearings, he thought he should stay out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs. Which is a good attitude for a judge, and a good attitude for top management 99% of the time. But not in an emergency situation like this.

    Chertoff would have made a good Supreme Court justice, with his native intelligence, probing intellect, and the care with which he acts. But the nation’s top firefighter is not a role he’s well suited for.

  23. The disaster in New Orleans was the result of generations of poor people building homes in a flood plain below sea level; local industries digging canals through environmentally sensitive wetlands; and the corps of engineers building levees that make minor storms survivalbe but that amplify the damage of the worst storms.

    I don’t understand why anyone at the federal level should be appologizing when the feds took the unprecedented action of declaring New Orleans a disaster area before Katrina got there.

  24. DHS and FEMA have been universally acknowledged (even WITHIN gov’t!) to be some of the most effed-up agencies in the entire government way prior to Katrina. And it’s true, when Chertoff came in he came in to a mess beyond what 99% of bureaucrats would even touch. I agree that “accepting responsibility” doesn’t mean he should leave. It means he understands that he has a lot more work to do. He’s also accepting the responsibility for making those changes. Personally I’d like to see more of that kind of accepting responsibility from gov’t officials.

  25. Chertoff held a press conference on September 1st. Topic? The terrorism awareness month for Goodness sake. He inserted a few “and the same by the way goes for natural disasters”, but that was it. I am with joe: if he is so smart and honest, he should have cancelled that idiotic press conference and worked on the disaster on hand.

  26. I think we are asking the wrong questions about Katrinagate.

    Does New Orleans affect interstate commerce? The lack of federal interest indicates no. Apparently weed isn’t grown in Louisiana like Cali.

    Does the devestation of a city with thousands dead raise the same kind of concern depending on the cause? No. If the cause is natural let ’em drown. If the cause are dark skin arabs, hold faith vigils, bring people to the SOTU address, and earmark hundreds of thousands of hours of righteous indignation.

    Is New Orleans a strategic asset of the United States? No. The federal response clearly indicates, in a time of war where the president can order warrentless wiretaps, that the destruction of a fairly large coastal city warrants a sing-a-long and some guitar strummin’ from the Commander in Chief.

    Thank you Chertoff for impaling yourself. We so much need George Bush to stay in office because there is no more competent person than he.

  27. BTW, fuck Chertoff inside and out with a pineapple for insisting that there was no one trapped at the Convention Center without food and water five days after the storm hit, and yelling at the reporters who informed him for “spreading false rumors.”

  28. Speaking of accepting responsibility, Cheney just accepted some.

  29. I’m rather surprised that no one on this libertarian site has questioned whether there should be a FEMA. That debate seems to have ended years ago and instead we quibble about which bureaucrat should be blamed for screwing up a damn-near impossible situation. Not that there should not have been some sort of emergency-response plan in place, especially in a disaster-waiting-to-happen locale like New Orleans, but a giant, distant bureaucracy like FEMA is ill-equipped to act quickly and decisively, regardless of their resources.

  30. Personally I find the entire question irrelevant. It shouldn’t be, “How much responsibility should Chertoff take for the fuckup, and if he personally fucked up should he be disemboweled or only beheaded?” The question should be, “Would New Orleans have been better off if the fedguv had stayed the hell out of the whole thing and stopped making everybody expect daddy to keep the bad storm away and make their boo-boos all better? Would New Orleans have been better off if people were expected to look around and say, ‘a hurricane’s coming and I live below sea level! I should maybe get the hell outa Dodge!'”

    Okay, that’s two questions. Anyway, I’m guessing they won’t be asked real soon; not in a congressional conference room, anyway.

  31. It was always my understanding that FEMA was, as some people have noted, an after-the-fact organization. And I have had several arguments with Republican associates who are quick to point out that FEMA — whatever its mission is — is not a first-response group. But as I always tell them, it wasn’t that FEMA failed to respond, but that they actively hindered relief efforts.

    I can’t begin to catalog or link to all of the news stories I read at the time demonstrating this point (many of them were posted here at H&R) but Lew Rockwell (whom I normally despise) offers some examples here.

    It would be one thing to complain that the Federal government did nothing. But that’s not what happened. The Feds energetically worked to extend human suffering. This from an administration that made safety from terrorist cataclysms like 9/11 its main platform in 2004. I asked at the time of Katrina and I’ll ask again: What if instead of a hurricane New Orleans had been nuked or gassed? WTF then? Would the Feds have suddenly been better organized and prepared simply because it was a man-made disaster?

  32. Well, what I to post was:

    Personally I find the entire question irrelevant. It shouldn’t be, “How much responsibility should Chertoff take for the fuckup, and if he personally fucked up should he be disemboweled or only beheaded?” The question should be, “Would New Orleans have been better off if the fedguv had stayed the hell out of the whole thing and stopped making everybody expect daddy to keep the bad storm away and make their boo-boos all better? Would New Orleans have been better off if people were expected to look around and say, ‘a hurricane’s coming and I live below sea level! I should maybe get the hell outa Dodge!'”

    Okay, that’s two questions. Anyway, I’m guessing they won’t be asked real soon; not in a congressional conference room, anyway.

  33. Jeez, what an entertaining server you guys have.

  34. Hmm. I just ran across a reference on Instapundit to Popular Mechanics’ initial reaction to the Katrina report. They don’t seem to think it was quite the horrible response that everyone wants to believe it was (that goes for the city, the state, and the feds, surprisingly). Of course, Popular Mechanics is a noted rightwing rag 🙂 Seriously, it’ll be interesting to see what their reaction is to the report after they’ve had time to digest it. It would be nice to see a technical analysis instead of the political nonsense that we’ve heard (from every direction) over the last five months.

  35. Joe,

    As usual you are grossly misinformed. I could almost forgive that if you didn’t so consistently choose to be uniformed and ignorent. It must be a blissful state I guess since you like it so much. People did take charge and do incredible work during Katrina. It was just an enormous undertaking. That hurricane effected 90,000 square miles. The people at the Convention Center you rave about were told not to go there. It was never designated as a shelter. They just sowed up. In mean time, the city flooded and it became impossible to get downtown to get them or get supplies to them. You don’t just show up with a magic wand and evacuate 1000s of people through flooded roads.

    I am so tired of the attitude that everything is the government’s fault and any misfortune that befalls someone should have prevented by the government. Everyone knew that storm was coming and there nothing stopping them from taking care of themselves or getting out of the way of the storm. The people in New Orleans were not children. You just think they were because they were black and being a liberal you are conditioned to look at all poor black people as children. They are not, and they got trapped down there because of the choices they made. It took a few days to get them because all the roads flooded and you couldn’t get down there. Bottomline is that if you are living below sea level and a hurricane is on the way and you choose to ride it out, you might be in for a few days of tough times. It is a horrible reality to face, but even if the government were perfect, bad things would still happen. More importantly, even if you were perfect, you could never always make the perfect decision because you never have perfect information.

    Of course for people like you Joe, these things are never about the truth or reality, they are just about confirming your own prejudices and political hatreds and bitterness.

  36. It’s spelled “ignorant,” dumbass.

    And, as usual, your rantings are a good indication that I’m on the right track.

    BTW, nothing in your post even comes close to refuting the proven fact that Chertoff was told of hundreds of starved, dehydrated people trapped in a building, and responded by denying the validity of the report, and yelling at the people who told him about it to stop spreading rumors.

    I’ll just let your rant about the role of government discredit itself by its appearance in a comment by you. Let your freak flag fly, Captian Spittlescreen!

  37. BTW, fuck Chertoff inside and out with a pineapple

    With a pineapple? Crikey!

  38. Thankfully, John would never stereotype liberals the way that joe (allegedly) stereotypes blacks!

  39. BTW, fuck Chertoff inside and out with a pineapple

    With a pineapple? Crikey!

    You call that a pineapple? That’s not a pineapple. There now, that’s a pineapple!

  40. “The people at the Convention Center you rave about were told not to go there. It was never designated as a shelter. They just sowed up.”

    I could swear I remember seeing people at the convention center on the news and, later reading acounts by people who were there, where they claim that they were directed there by police and other officials because that is where buses would meet them for evacuation. Anybody else remember this or am I wrong?

    “In mean time, the city flooded and it became impossible to get downtown to get them or get supplies to them.”

    Didn’t Sean Penn or somebody get to the convention center with a truckload of supplies?

  41. The latest Abu Ghraib pictures are getting a fair bit of play in the UK, and the news reports also reshow Rumsfeld “accepting responsibility” for what happened.

  42. Let’s see… Didn’t Janet Reno “accept responsibility” for the Waco debacle?

    So, did she do time? Did she take a pay cut? Did she even have to say three “Hail Mary”s?

    -jcr

  43. “The people at the Convention Center you rave about were told not to go there. It was never designated as a shelter. They just sowed up.”

    Oh, well then, I guess the agency in charge of coordinating relief efforts was right to let them starve and dehydrate.

    “In mean time, the city flooded and it became impossible to get downtown to get them or get supplies to them.”

    Funny, they managed to get supplies to them after the story hit the press.

  44. In mean time, the city flooded and it became impossible to get downtown to get them or get supplies to them.

    Kinda makes you wonder how the news crews got in, then, doesn’t it?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.