The Buck Stops Where?

By Jonathan Wallace

Harry Truman understood that authority and responsibility are one, that they must lie in the same place. He put a sign on his desk that said, "The buck stops here." When J. Robert Oppenheimer was moaning that he had dropped the bomb and killed Japanese civilians, Truman observed to his aides that Oppenheimer didn't drop the bomb; Truman did.

George Bush does not understand. It is impossible to determine where, if anywhere, in this administration the buck actually stops. The President too often seems to be the child of his vice president, Dick Cheney. The fact that they will be appearing together before the 9/11 Commission is not confidence inspiring. It is almost certainly planned this way so that Cheney can interrupt the president if he starts to blither.

If it is Dick Cheney who has true authority in this administration, his subservient position--vice president, the fifth wheel on the engine of government--absolves him from taking any responsibility. As the war in Iraq goes sour and as the 9/11 Commission raises more pressing questions about our failure to prevent the attacks, the litany is clear and repetitive: blame the Clinton administration. Blame the CIA. Blame the FBI. Blame anyone but me.

When I was a very young lawyer, I went to a meeting at which the senior partner of another firm blamed his associate for not having some contracts ready. Even then I knew enough to understand how weak that sounded. He reports to you, you fool, so if he makes a mistake it is yours. Responsibility flows to the top in any organization, a business or a government. It ultimately is traced to the individual with the greatest authority. Unlike the theory of responsibility used in court cases, in which it is usually linked to intention, foreknowledge or negligence, responsibility in organizations is purer and simpler. It lies with the man who had the most authority to act, regardless of what he knew. This is the only way to run any kind of organization, by being able to hold someone responsible for anything that happens. The question of how diligent the actor was is relevant only to the issue of what to do about him. You may hold him responsble for things for which you may not fire him or even sanction him, because you believe he did all he could. But he is still responsible.

I do blame the Clinton administration, which failed to respond with any strength to the 1993 World Trade Center attack or the embassy bombings. I think the president was distracted, politically weak, and later entirely sapped by scandals including the Monica Lewinsky thing, which he could have avoided if he'd had the slight amount of self-discipline necessary to keep his dick in his pocket.

But the Bush administration still had the better part of a year, and they had Zacarias Moussaoui in custody without ever searching his apartment or his computer, which might have led them in time to the hijackers. An Islamic fundamentalist is arrested after taking lessons on how to fly, but not land, an airplane and nobody gets the president, or even the head of the FBI on the phone to say, this is interesting. A memo goes out from the local FBI office and is disregarded.

Al Qaeda was able to bring down the trade towers with a small number of men and less material because the only goal of all its deliberation and action was how to do the most murder with the smallest resources. The FBI is not as efficient. The goal there seems to have become how to hit a certain number of very abstract marks during a career that may not actually have very much to do with making cases or arresting "evil-doers". Make the salary, get the promotion, get the choice assignment, don't get in trouble.

A symptom of disorganized organizations where responsibility and authority are divorced from one another and then hidden in fragments in hundreds of places, is a terrible computer system. The old, despairing question, "How do we even know what we know?" could profitably have been asked at the FBI, where information was disseminated via an old-boy network and not through an antiquated, crippled information system.

The general crippling of our government via the weakening and hiding of lines of authority is also well-illustrated by the extreme proliferation of intelligence organizations that do not communicate with one another. Ultimately, someone ought to be held responsible, at the highest possible level, for the fact that two of the hijackers, whose names were well-known to the CIA, were living in the open in San Diego. One of them was even listed in the phone-book.

While the roots of our failure to detect the hijackers in the United States--or to prevent Al Qaeda from sending them--stretch well back into the Clinton administration, the responsibility for the terrible mess we are making in Iraq does not. The world is less secure now than it was before we invaded that country and more than six hundred Americans, and uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians, have died in pursuit of this insecurity. Did Saddam, in some clear and simple moral reckoning, deserve to be deposed? Certainly. Have we ever held it to be our responsibility to depose every fearsome dictator? No; we put Pinochet in place in Chile, who shot, tortured and even had his own people raped; we long tolerated people like Papa Doc Duvalier, Idi Amin, and Bocassa, and thought many of them better than the leftist mob we feared would replace them. Since we never considered it our responsibility to clear out every torturer, why Saddam?

It is not possible to come up with any better answer today than that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had a hard-on for him. If there was no WMD, and no link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, he might better have been left moldering in place. We had already successfully neutralized him and didn't know it. In his place, we now have an incredibly destructive black hole, sucking up lives. It is like being back in the Vietnam era to read the daily list of the American dead in the newspaper, and to think: for what? There must be people in the Pentagon right now day-dreaming about putting Saddam back in power. Nostalgic for the old days.

Shiites and Sunnis had been killing one another for centuries and now we have finally managed to unite them with a common goal of killing us. Using weapons stolen from munitions warehouses and dumps we knew about but were too thin on the ground to guard. What exactly was the plan? And who will stand up before the American people and say, "I am sorry. I screwed up?"

The president does what his handlers tell him. Please, let us admit the obvious, that he is not an intelligent man or an independent thinker, not a strong personality, not someone who ever had to take much responsibility or was allowed to exercise much authority in his life. More than anything, I blame the kingmakers in the Republican party, who saw fit to give us a figurehead president in such a dangerous time. Behind Bush stand intelligent people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who are made stupid by ideology. Who probably believed that we would be welcome as liberators, that "old Europe" would take its beating and fall obediently into line, that we don't need a much larger army to hold onto what we already believed we had won. But, because they are not the president, they have only authority, not responsibility.

For much of my career in business, I was the person responsible for making things come out right, without having the authority to fire anyone who got in the way or to spend the money to fix the problems. This is a thankless job and the source of great stress and embarassment. But the opposite kind of executive, the one who like Cheney and Rumsfeld have only authority, and no responsibility, are actively dangerous. The Vice President has no defined role in American government at all, except the ceremonial one of presiding over the Senate. Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense has been carefree in making stupid comments (like the "old Europe" one) that blow up Colin Powell's initiatives, without being held to account.

The president's press conference on April 13 provides a lot of insight into the president's views on responsibility. There seems to be a gap between the vague, toned-down coverage of the war in the mainstream press and the smart questions the reporters actually ask. A reporter named Terry listed the claims about Iraq--WMD, our reception as liberators--that have proved to be false, and concluded: "How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what have turned out to be a series of false premises?"

The President's seven paragraph answer says almost nothing responsive, but contains a couple of highly interesting turns of phrase. First he speaks of a recent visit to Iraq by Charlie Duelfer, head of the survey group still responsbile for looking for the nonexistent WMD.

[Charlie] was amazed at how deceptive the Iraqis had been towards UNMOVIC and UNSCOM. Deceptive at hiding things. We knew they were hiding things. A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of getting caught.

Hiding what things? To paraphrase Garry Trudeau: "President, we need a noun." We have slid a long way from the days when Abraham Lincoln wrote his own speeches.

This is a guy who's a torturer, a killer, a maimer. There's mass graves. I mean he was really a horrible individual who shocked the country in many ways...

Then, on the issue of why we have not been greeted as liberators in most places: "[T]hey're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either."

In all this, no answer to the question, no recognition that any of the premises on which we launched this war were false.

The next reporter, Elizabeth, asks the President head on: "[D]o you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11?"

The Commander in Chief blithers for a few moments, concluding:

I was, on that day, I was angry and sad. Angry that Al Qaeda had, at the time thought Al Qaeda, found out shortly afterward that it was Al Qaeda, had unleashed this attack. Sad for those who lost their life.

Your question, do I feel?

Elizabeth then repeats her question, almost word for word. The president does not say yes, or no. He goes on for two long paragraphs, saying that we now have the Department of Homeland Security, and the Patriot Act, that the FBI and CIA will do better at sharing information. "In order to secure the country, we must do everything in our power to find these killers and bring them to justice before they hurt us again. I'm afraid they want to hurt us again."

Dave is next. At this point, the president must feel that the reporters are like pit bulls attached to his leg. Dave again lists the lack of WMD, the lack of postwar planning in Iraq, the failure to deter 9/11.

One of the biggest criticisms of you is never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism? And do you believe there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics that I brought up?

Still no yes or no. Just:

[M]ost of the country never felt we'd be vulnerable to an attack such as the one that Osama bin Laden unleashed on us....But there was nobody in our government at least. And I don't think the prior government could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale.

Then remarkably: "And of course I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet."

Because they're not there?

John refers to the apology to the American people made by former National Security advisor Richard Clarke. "Do you believe that the American people deserve a similar apology from you and would you be prepared to give them one?"

The president replies: "[T]he person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden." Which is true as far as it goes, but imagine the same reply made by a sentry who slept on the job, or his commanding officer.

John later asks the president what his biggest mistake has been since September 11. "In the last used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa."

And the President, God help us, replies:

Hmmm. I wish you'd given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it....I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet.

Which is why they won't send him before the experts on the 9/11 Commission without Dick Cheney there to interrupt and talk over him whenever necessary.

While we are all sweating it out, waiting for something to pop into the president's head, ask yourself the very serious question: where does the buck stop in this administration?