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Candide's Notebooks

Absolution As Accountability

Pierre Tristam

It's a literary genre all its own that will take its place among the few original contributions of the Bush administration: the Official Report analyzing failures and ascribing blame for one scandal or another: The 9/11 Commission report, the report on Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, several Abu Ghraib reports, the various and near-annual reports on the USA Patriot Act's civil rights violations, and now, the inspector general's report about George Tenet's woeful tenure as CIA chief, which, in effect, facilitated, if it didn't enable, the 9/11 attacks. But every single one of those reports have this in common: they spread the blame to all, ascribing it to no one. They absolve even as they seem to criticize. Is it any wonder we're so much worse off than we were on 9/11?

Benjamin DeMott picked up on this blame as absolution fad back on the heels of the publication of the 9/11 Commission report in 2004. This, DeMott wrote, was the report we were all anxiously anticipating, the report that was bound to answer all our questions. How couldn't it with its 567 pages, including a hundred-plus pages of footnotes, the analytical summation of 2.5 million pages of documents, the public testimony of 160 witnesses and interviews with 1,200 knowledgeable persons in ten countries "(including every top official from two U.S. administrations whose jobs involved intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, immigration, aviation, border control, congressional oversight, you name it)." But the promise of answers was not kept. "The plain, sad reality," DeMott wrote,

is that The 9/11 Commission Report, despite the vast quantity of labor behind it, is a cheat and a fraud. It stands as a series of evasive maneuvers that infantilize the audience, transform candor into iniquity, and conceal realities that demand immediate inspection and confrontation. Because it is continuously engaged in scotching all attempts to distinguish better from worse leadership responses, the Commission can't discharge its duty to educate the audience about the habits of mind and temperament essential in those chosen to discharge command responsibility during crises. It can't tell the truth about what was done and not done, thought and not thought, at crucial turning points. [...] [A] seeming terror of bias transforms query after commissarial query-and silence after silence-into suggested new lines of self-justification for the interviewees. In the course of blaming everybody a little, the Commission blames nobody-blurs the reasons for the actions and hesitations of successive administrations, masks choices that, fearlessly defined, might actually have vitalized our public political discourse.

But we are not only scared of true, deconstructive and reconstructive political discourse. We condemn it as uncivil, as divisive, as unseemly. We have reduced all attempts to search for truths and learn from mistakes into exercises in the national preservation of self-esteem. And if not national preservation, as in the case of the 9/11 report, then institutional preservation. The Pentagon mustn't be blamed too much for training and turning out barbaric soldiers whose inhumanity was unleashed at Abu Ghraib (and whose inhumanity is unleashed daily on Iraqi civilians to this day) because after all the Pentagon can't be blamed for its bad apples. The cause is larger than the cracked bones along the way. The president and his administration can't be blamed for their failure of imagination (let alone leadership) in the run-up to 9/11 because after all it was a failure that everyone else shared in, supposedly. (Never mind that we elect a president expecting him to rise above the ordinary, to provide precisely the sort of leadership that doesn't brook failures of imagination so catastrophic that they end up changing the course of national history.)


Weapons of Mass Destruction weren't found in Iraq, but that failure, too, has now been excused, replaced by the narrative the Bush administration pout forward in the months and years since its Iraq adventure turned into the war crime it's become: based on the evidence available at the time, Bush had to act as he did. The evidence didn't lie. Bush didn't lie. It just didn't match up with the reality on the ground. And the electorate bought the narrative whole. This, despite the evidence of this administration's incompetence piling up week after week, in report after report. Half the Bush cabinet should have been axed after the 9/11 attacks and the other half probably tried for criminal negligence. Instead, not a single member of the Bush administration walked, and its greatest culprit was reelected.

Now we get this CIA report: "The former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, recognized the danger posed by Al Qaeda well before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but failed to adequately prepare the C.I.A. to meet the threat, according to an internal agency report that was released in summary form," the Times reported. "Mr. Tenet was sometimes too occupied with tactics instead of strategy, and he was lax in promoting an information-sharing environment within the C.I.A., the inspector general's office of the agency says in a report released today." In other words, and in any language, the man failed. The man failed. Instead, we get this absolution from the Inspector General: "The team found neither 'a single point of failure' nor a 'silver bullet' that would have enabled the intelligence community to predict or prevent the 9/11 attacks," the inspector general's office said. "The team did find, however, failures to implement and manage important processes, to follow through with operations and to properly share and analyze critical data."

Improve the process. Tweak protocol. Communicate better. Get along better. Anything but blame. Anything but true accountability. Anything but punishment for those cronies of incompetence collecting book deals and spinning their tales while the failures they ensured continue to wreck the scene for the rest of us. As Foreign Policy, the magazine, sums up in its latest Terrorism Index, after interviewing terrorism experts all over the world, "The world these experts see today is one that continues to grow more threatening. Fully 91 percent say the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans and the United States, up 10 percentage points since February. Eighty-four percent do not believe the United States is winning the war on terror, an increase of 9 percentage points from six months ago. More than 80 percent expect a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decade, a result that is more or less unchanged from one year ago."

This, too, is unchanged: George Bush is still president. All roads may have once led to Rome. Hell's all lead to him, and not a one is paved with good intention.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

© 2007 Pierre Tristam

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