Accountability: Why Not Start at the Top?

The word “accountability” is always bandied about in Washington as the solution for the woes brought on America by the current governing generation. Impassioned calls for accountability from presidents, senators, congressman, as well as media, academic, and social elites are heard whenever disaster hits America. The accountability police then swing into gear and invariably fail to find any senior, politically influential, well-paid individual accountable for anything. Generally, junior, politically impotent, just-making-ends-meet officials are found culpable for failure.

In my 22-year federal career, two examples stand out. A junior intelligence community (IC) officer was fired after the mistaken bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Serbian war. Everyone in the National Security Council, the IC, Congress, Congress’ intelligence committees, and the Department of Defense knows only U.S. military commanders order attacks. Several IC agencies suggest targets and provide supporting data, but that information must be vetted by the military for accuracy. The decision to attack is made only when that process is complete. In short, the bombing of China’s embassy occurred because the military failed to vet IC-provided data. Who took the fall? A junior IC officer thrown to the wolves by his superiors.

Flash ahead to the 9/11 Commission and its report. Until the eve of publication, the draft report blamed a junior IC officer for failing to watchlist two of the hijackers. This officer was the only federal government employee the 9/11 Commission was going to find culpable for al-Qaeda’s attack. A score of the junior officer’s colleagues made it clear to their superiors and the Commission that such scapegoating would not stand. The Commissioners, to their credit, dropped the issue.

So now let’s talk about the lack of accountability, but let’s look a few rungs higher and ask some questions. There is no point in making this piece too long, and so – in the Letterman tradition – I append below 10 issues that I, as a former senior civil servant and now a plain old citizen, would like to have our elected leaders explain. The basic question on each is: why they, personally, should not be held accountable and, if culpable, be subject to a process to determine proper punishment. As the reader will see, failures large and small can lead to disaster for America. It seems only fair that the senior-level authors of large and small failures ought to be held responsible. Consider this a preemptive demand for accountability, naming near-certain future failures, identifying the senior officials who will likely be to blame, and hopefully foreclosing more whitewashings by arrogantly oracular blue-ribbon investigatory commissions.

1. Making War

Having been raised by a Marine veteran – all of whom are taught deep respect for the Constitution – and educated by Jesuits, who teach the glories of that document, the Founders, and the Federalist Papers, I am amazed that no one in the media, the academy, or the courts has tried to hold Congress accountable for ceding its war powers to the president. In America’s wars since 1945, the Congress has all but run from protecting the prerogative the Constitution explicitly assigns it – declaring war. Indeed, in the dazzling series of wars initiated by Messrs. Bush, Clinton, and Bush, the Congress has cowardly avoided its Constitutional responsibility with namby-pamby war-supporting resolutions, allowing large numbers of legislators to then turn, like the jackals they are, on the president later and attack him for going to war. The Founders never intended the president to have a war-making power far greater than that held by George III; they wanted that decision to be made by the people through their elected representatives. In essence, congressional cowardice has produced the de facto amendment of the Constitution, transferring the war-making power to the executive branch and making demi-monarchs of our Republic’s chief magistrates.

2. FBI Computers

This is a seemingly mundane topic, but in the age of terrorism, and 10 years after bin Laden declared war on America, the FBI still does not have a computer system that allows reliable, rapid, and secure communications within its own organization or with other IC units. This yields a commonsense conclusion: the FBI does not know what it knows, cannot do research electronically, and cannot assist other IC units in protecting America. It makes a cruel joke of the recent report that the FBI has concluded there are no al-Qaeda sleeper cells in America. How could they possibly know if they cannot talk to each other or to their IC partners? After the next bin Laden attack, the investigators will try to hang an FBI officer on the street. But the truth will be – and is now – that Judge Freeh and Mr. Mueller have utterly failed to find a computer system their officers can use to better defend America, and have presided over the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

3. Immigration

This issue and the failure to control our borders (see below) demonstrate more clearly than any others that no elected official in the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations has been serious about protecting Americans against al-Qaeda and its allies. Americans aren’t urging a nativist immigration policy, a vendetta against this or that immigrant group, or a policy that prohibits immigration entirely. We simply want the president and the Congress to enforce the laws that are on the books – a novel idea these days – find out who is in the country illegally, and deport those who have not played by the rules. Until this is done, Americans should not fool themselves; they are not safer than they were on 9/11. As long as elected officials refuse to enforce the laws they passed, the welcome mat is laid out for our enemies to exploit. Cowardice again rules, however. Note Representative Pelosi’s charming but odd logic in claiming that fully enforcing immigration laws to make Americans safe would tarnish our country’s glow as a beacon of freedom. Are we a country of laws or a country of “glow”? Now, when al-Qaeda strikes again, whom do you think will be held accountable? Ms. Pelosi and her brethren on both sides of the aisle, or the U.S. law enforcement community that is being overwhelmed by the former’s shameful refusal to ensure enforcement of the immigration laws they passed?

4. Dual Citizenship

Dual citizens in America? How could this happen? Does not the Constitution forbid non-native born individuals from being president, on the wise belief that a person cannot serve and be loyal to two masters? And yet we find: (a) U.S. citizens voting in Iraqi, Mexican, Irish, Israeli, and who knows how many other elections and (b) no action being taken by the federal government to terminate this illegal practice. Dual citizens are no less “agents of a foreign power” than those U.S. citizens who take a salary to lobby the U.S. government for foreign states. These latter individuals, however, must register as foreign agents because of the mission they execute. Participating in other countries’ political affairs unavoidably undermines the dual citizen’s loyalty to America. Why is it allowed?

5. The Borders

The failure of our elected officials to control our borders is a surefire nail in America’s coffin. There is no sensible way to defend the current absurd situation of wide-open borders except by the Pelosi method of taking no action to enforce existing laws and singing the praises of “America, the beacon of liberty to the world.” In doing this, the congresswoman and her brethren in both parties are hoping American citizens do not notice that their country is being invaded by narcotics-traffickers, people-smugglers, illegal immigrants, terrorists, and various other threats to national security. Again, federal, state, and local law enforcement officers will be left holding the bag when the accountability police ignore the cowardly Congress and instead search for working folks to hang after the next disaster befalls America.

6. The Military (Except the Marines)

If Americans can learn one thing from the Founders and the Federalist Papers, it should be to fear the dangerous impact on a republic of a large, professional standing army. All of us need to review the Federalist to refresh our memories on this eternal truth. The books that have appeared since 9/11 – by Richard Clarke, Steve Simon , Bob Woodward, Dan Benjamin, Steve Coll, and others – make it clear that General Shelton, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Zinni, as CENTCOM commander, consistently refused requests from President Clinton to take action against Osama bin Laden. Asked by Clinton for plans to use “black-clad ninjas” to take out bin Laden, the generals always came back obsessed with fear of collateral damage, and plans that resembled the invasion of Normandy, plans clearly impossible to implement secretly or promptly. They in effect defied the president’s wishes; shame on them and shame on Clinton for allowing them to do so. Not to be outdone, their successors – General Myers and General Franks – had nothing usable to offer President Bush on 9/11 or the day after. Except for Marine generals, America’s generals are evolving into political players, concerned with protecting their perks, prerogatives, and budgets; avoiding casualties; and deciding what tasks they will accept from elected officials. Who’s accountable? We all are. We have all sat and watched these bureaucrat-generals become self-serving demigods because we are afraid to speak up for fear of being called “anti-military” or “unpatriotic.” We should each take the Federalist to heart and begin pressing our elected representatives to replace these general-bureaucrats with leaders worthy of commanding the American men and women who today form the world’s finest soldiery.

7. 9/11 Commissioners

The utter failure of this august group of fact-proof individuals raises a fascinating question: who holds the accountability police accountable for their deliberate failures? Maybe the ghosts of the 9/11 dead? Or perhaps the ghosts of all the dead who will surely follow them because of the arrogant and deliberate refusal of Messrs. Kean, Hamilton, et. al to find any senior government official responsible for anything that led to the 9/11 disaster. My own bet here is that the next – and larger – batch of al-Qaeda-produced American dead will be avenged by the dozens of IC officers who told the 9/11 Commissioners in detail about the personal failure and negligence of senior IC officials that got our country to 9/11, and who were totally ignored.

8. Energy Policy

Where does one begin on this issue? Thirty years after Saudi King Faisal’s oil embargo, we have, at best, moved in fits and starts toward diversifying our energy options. For the most part, both political parties wheel out the economists whenever energy policy is raised. These bright folks then engage in an arcane discussion of trite truths about how the world’s oil supply is “fungible” and Arab oil producers must sell to the West to survive. The economists are useful obfuscators for the politicians because what needs to be discussed is not energy supply, but energy supply in the context of national security. The question is not whether oil will be available, but how many American soldiers we are willing to spend to secure how many thousands of barrels of oil. That is, how many foreign interventions are we willing to brook to allow our elected leaders to ensure reelection by not promoting domestic production and alternative-source development, which would require raising energy taxes, ignoring environmental preservationists, and alienating oil companies? The truth is that the acquisition/protection of oil currently is a legitimate reason for America going to war; the question is: should it be? We are in this fix largely because presidents, senators, and congressmen for 30 years have hidden behind their economist shills, thereby avoiding the harder, more pertinent issue of how many lives per thousand barrels we, as a nation, want to spend for oil. The good thing about the conduct of U.S. energy policy since 1975 is that accountability is easy to assign. In a few square blocks of Washington, D.C., sit the Capitol and the executive branch buildings. These house the men and women who have put reelection above the lives of our soldiers and have made foreign oil an integral part of the nation’s national security requirements. And what have they done lately to address the problem? Look at the spectacle of New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, who recently asked the president to release umpteen million barrels of oil from the strategic reserve to lower consumer gas prices – and, of course, simultaneously increase our need for external supplies. Well, bless his heart, the good senator has given Americans a solid reminder of where to find those accountable for their dead children when the energy piper’s bill comes due.

9. Iraq

While former Senator Robb’s investigatory commission looks at what went wrong with the analysis the IC provided for the Iraq war, those accountable for that still-unfolding disaster continue to merrily make more mistakes. Mistaking a spate of public demonstrations and rigged elections in Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as “democratic winds of change” sweeping the Islamic world, Messrs. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Cambone, Woolsey, their media acolytes, and general-officer sycophants drive America ever deeper into an unending era of unnecessary warfare in the Muslim world. Perhaps accountability is not possible here, for if these error-spewing ideologues were cashiered for their lethal misadventure in Iraq, most could simply retire on their millions, return to the groves of academe, or go back to working with Benjamin Netanyahu.

10. The Next al-Qaeda Attack

Please refer to all of the above.

Author: Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.