Monday, January 11, 2010

Taking Responsiblity- or not

I have been somewhat surprised by all of the news coverage of the fact that the President said he takes responsibility for the multiples failures of the intelligence gathering agencies concerning the “underwear bomber.” He did this presumably to meet his other goal of not wanting to blame individuals. Some liberal or progressive bloggers take the President’s statement as a positive acknowledgement, especially since his predecessor isalleged to have never taken responsibility for his actions.

Something about these discussions troubled me. Since words and their meanings matter, I decided to explore it a bit more. The Macmillan dictionary defines responsibility in three ways which seem most relevant here:

1. the state or job of being in charge of someone or something and of making sure that what they do or what happens to them is right or satisfactory (e.g., She has a lot of responsibility as a nurse) or responsibility for ( e.g., Overall responsibility for the school lies with the head or have responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., You will have responsibility for sales and marketing) or take responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., Would someone take responsibility for bringing Paul home?) or assume responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., Serrano immediately assumed temporary responsibility for foreign affairs) or a position of responsibility (e.g., People in positions of responsibility cannot behave like ).

2. a duty that you have to do because it is part of your job or position (e.g., She is my responsibility, now that her parents are gone ) or a responsibility to do something (e.g., It is your responsibility to provide us with concrete evidence) or responsibility to/towards (e.g., What is the individual’s responsibility to others in modern society) or have a responsibility to/towards someone (e.g., We have a responsibility to our shareholders and to our depositors) or have a responsibility to do something (We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again) or a sense of responsibility (e.g., Parenthood brings a huge sense of responsibility).

3, blame for something that has happened such as claim/accept responsibility for something (e.g., No one claimed responsibility for the attack on the embassy) or take responsibility for (doing)something (e.g., Allan has got to take responsibility for the failure of the deal)

So what do we think the President meant? Since he did not want to blame anyone was he saying that we can blame him? If so, he could have simply said “The failures of the intelligence agencies were my fault and I should be held accountable.” Did he mean that he is in charge of the executive branch of government and part of his duties is to make sure what it does is right or satisfactory? Or did he mean that ensuring that the intelligence agencies work properly is part of his job or position? Maybe understanding the duties of the President can help here. According to

Under Article II of the Constitution, the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress. Fifteen executive departments — each led by an appointed member of the President's Cabinet — carry out the day-to-day administration of the federal government. They are joined in this by other executive agencies such as the CIA and Environmental Protection Agency, the heads of which are not part (sic) of the Cabinet, but who are under the full authority of the President. The President also appoints the heads of more than 50 independent federal commissions, such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as federal judges, ambassadors, and other federal offices. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) consists of the immediate staff to the President, along with entities such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Thus, it is the President’s responsibility to execute and enforce laws relating to the intelligence agencies. Therefore, he might well have been saying that he is in charge of the executive branch of government and one of his duties is to ensure that its actions are right or satisfactory, or that ensuring the proper functioning of the intelligence agencies is part of his job description. In either case, it strikes me as the President stating the obvious.

The analyzed former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s taking responsibility for firing the federal prosecutors this way:

What interests me is the phenomenon of people taking responsibility for actions but not suffering any consequences for what it is they are taking responsibility for. …Gonzales said… that "mistakes were made" in the way the department handled and explained the firings and he said "I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said during a press conference. "And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur in the future." So, Mr. Gonzales accepts the responsibility for this mess but apparently not the blame for it. There is a very important distinction to be made here. If you accept the blame for something, then you will normally suffer real consequences. You may go to prison, as with the enlisted people who worked at Abu Ghraib or Scooter Libby, or be forced to resign from your position… But in many cases, it seems to be possible to get away with accepting responsibility for an action without suffering any consequences….The young are told over and over that they must accept responsibility for their actions. They are told that they must be accountable for their actions. In the (then) current Administration, what they are teaching us is that there is a real distinction between accepting responsibility and being accountable. You can do the one without doing the other….

By saying that he did not want to place blame, the President was simply acknowledging that his job description includes ensuring that the intelligence operations are functioning properly. I did not hear him say that he was at fault or that he should be held accountable for their ”lack of playing together well.” He was accepting responsibility for an action knowing that there was no possibility of suffering any consequences, at least until the 2012 elections. Being the wordsmith that he appears to be, I am sure that he knew that his words sounded good, but had little practical import. I am not so sure that his “taking responsibility” was all the different than President Bush never taking responsibility. Responsibility without accountability is simply saying it’s in my job description

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