Accountability is Complicated

Accountability is Complicated

As the newest scandals show, punishinment and blame are never as simple as they seem.

We've lately had a spate of newsworthy despicable behavior by people in official positions, leading to calls for accountability which in turn raise some issues I discussed last year about the nature and meaning of accountability. There is the latest behavioral obscenity by young troops in Afghanistan, who posed for pictures with parts of an enemy's dismembered body. There is the caper with the prostitutes of Cartagena, involving members of the Secret Service and the military. Then of course there is the over-the-top outrage of some people in the General Services Administration deciding to have an expensive frolic in Las Vegas at the taxpayers' expense. (Much of the thirst for accountability for that last incident was quenched when the head of GSA fired a couple of her senior subordinates and then resigned.)

My National Interest colleague Jacob Heilbrunn has laid into the Secret Service for the Colombian prostitution scandal, saying that “heads need to roll.” Andrew Bacevich has taken a similar tack with the military for a variety of failures and contretemps such as the body-parts incident in Afghanistan, arguing that commanders should be held strictly accountable for everything that happens in their commands. Sounds simple, doesn't it? When bad things happen, isn't punishing someone a way to keep similar bad things from happening again?

But accountability isn't that simple; it's complicated. And whether punishments improve the future performance of government institutions gets even more complicated, in ways that I explored in my earlier offering on the subject. When bad things happen in governmental organizations, sometimes this is because someone screwed up, but sometimes not. And even when there clearly has been not only a screw-up but outright misbehavior, as there was in all the aforementioned cases, how far should accountability extend? Bacevich concedes that “we should not overstate the reach of command authority,” which is a mild way of stating the fact that most lower-level behavior is out of sight and effectively out of the control of even the most diligent and hands-on senior leader. So what good does it do, in terms of improving future performance, to punish that leader? Moreover, if merely being somewhere under someone's command is sufficient reason to hold that someone accountable in terms of punishment, then how far up do we go? If we don't draw a line, that would mean every piece of misbehavior in the executive branch of the federal government could lead to impeachment of the president. If we do draw a line, what is the rationale for drawing it at one particular level rather than a level or two higher up or lower down?

Amid these uncertainties, applying the principle that anyone with command authority should be held accountable regardless of whether that person had direct knowledge or control of the objectionable situation encourages a kind of game among senior leaders, the object of which is to jump into head-rolling action quickly enough so that one fires people below before one can be fired by anyone above. That draws the line for accountability just below the level of the game player. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates, to whom Bacevich refers approvingly, was a master at playing that game . It enabled him, whenever something within his span of authority went wrong and happened to cause a public flap, to be perceived publicly as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. It warded off any suggestions that if the hold-authority-accountable principle were to be applied consistently, Gates himself should be held accountable for malfeasance in the department he headed.

The Washington Post has run a profile on Paula Reid, the Secret Service's boss for the South American region and as such in the thick of activity involving the Cartagena scandal. Blanket application of the hold-authority-accountable principle would seem to suggest that her head should be one of those to roll. But the Post's profile is very favorable, depicting an officer who not only had a strong record of performance prior to this year but also responded vigorously to what her underlings in Colombia had done. So does that mean accountability should stop at a lower level? And if the Post's description is to be believed, what does that mean for how we should judge the performance of more senior levels? If the director of the Secret Service placed such a capable officer in this important position before the Cartagena incident, what more could he have been expected to do—without circumventing and undermining his own senior subordinates—to see to it that operations in Colombia were conducted properly?


The director, Mark Sullivan, over the past few days “ has gone out of his way to make himself accessible to members of Congress ,” according to the New York Times . The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, said, “He woke me up at 5:15 in the morning this week. . . . I felt like telling him, ‘Mark, let me sleep.’ ” This hyperactivity in front of Sullivan's overseers might be a mark of a very diligent and capable director, or it may have less to do with running the Secret Service well than with the public-relations game of being perceived as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I do not know which it is. Mr. King's committee, through careful investigation backed by subpoena power, might be able to get some idea which it is.