Institutions, not People, Get the Blame

We now live in a world where leaders escape blame for misguided wars or scandals.

Instead, official inquiries point the finger at government institutions and agencies, lack of congressional oversight and low-ranking soldiers. Those in charge get a free pass.

That may be why President Bush, former President Clinton and a host of military commanders are heaving big sighs of relief. So is British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in two major inquiries, was found blameless for using flawed intelligence to justify helping the United States attack Iraq.

Among the recent rash of official exonerations was a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that mainly blamed faulty CIA data about Saddam Hussein's lethal arsenals for the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq. The panel found no evidence that the CIA was responding to pressure from the White House to cook the books for a war that Bush was clearly determined to undertake.

This week, the 9/11 commission completed its investigation of the 2001 terrorist attacks and blamed an outmaneuvered, dysfunctional U.S. government bureaucracy for failing to fathom the capabilities and intentions of the Islamic terrorists who slammed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

The commission -- chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. -- stopped short of assigning any blame to Clinton or Bush. Both had received intelligence reports about the possibility that al-Qaida would try to hijack planes before 9/11. But neither gave the threats a high priority, the panel said.

White House aides, including national security affairs adviser Condoleezza Rice and spokesman Scott McClellan, had their answers ready when the 9/11 report was released.

"The blame here lies with the people who committed" the terrorist acts, they told reporters. Having been tread on so lightly, Bush naturally praised the report and said he would consider the commission's recommendations.

This amounts to a forced change of attitude on the part of the president. He initially opposed the creation of the commission but couldn't stand up to the political pressures created by family members of 9/11 victims who demanded the inquiry.

His administration then sought to limit its scope and duration, resisted requests for documents and testimony and restricted officials' cooperation with the panel.

Both the Senate committee and the 9/11 panel were bipartisan and reached unanimous conclusions. It appears that some members pulled their punches for the sake of unity.

Bush has been officially declared exempt of any responsibility for the catastrophes that bared the nation's vulnerabilities to disinformation on the high-stakes question of war and unpreparedness for terrorist attacks on the home front.

Another report -- oddly made public on the same day as the 9/11 commission's study and overshadowed in the news media -- cleared the Army's top officers of any blame for the horrifying abuses of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 300-page report to the Senate Armed Services Committee, by Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, described 20 detainee deaths and 74 cases of abuse, including beatings, sexual assaults and thefts, as aberrations rather than "systemic."

That finding does not jibe with the revelations of the International Red Cross Committee last February that found a pattern of harsh treatment. The Red Cross said the mistreatment of prisoners seemed to be standard operating procedure by the military intelligence personnel to extract information.

Somewhere in this sorry saga are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House counsel Albert Gonzales, who has been touted for the next opening on the U.S. Supreme Court. They are responsible for designing the rules that governed the treatment of detainees. Gonzales may rue the day he described as "quaint" the Geneva Conventions on humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war.

Alas for Bush and Blair. They had stampeded their nations to war by preaching that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties with al-Qaida. Now that we know those arguments are phony, both leaders have been forced to a Plan B argument to justify the war by saying the world is safer now that it is rid of Saddam Hussein.

A smiling Blair said, glibly, that he assumed "full personal responsibility" for the falsehoods that led Britain into the war.

Bush won't go that far.

McClellan bobbed and weaved when asked whether Bush also takes personal responsibility, saying only that the president decided to confront a threat from Saddam "before it's too late."

Although they have been cleared of blame for the war and the shameful prisoner abuses, it's a pity to think they might get away with it.

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