For a case study in accountability (and the lack of it), contrast the Marine Corps’ decision this week to fire two generals for inadequately protecting a base in Helmand Province with the CIA’s lack of any similar disciplinary measures after a comparable disaster in December 2009 when a suicide bomber invaded a base in Khost, Afghanistan.
There was an almost brutal decisiveness in the decision by Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant. He fired two major generals who were commanding Marine troops and aviators in southern Afghanistan when the Taliban overran a NATO airfield on Sept. 14, 2012, and destroyed a half-dozen U.S. fighter jets.
The Marine Corps is a disciplined organization because it holds officers responsible for actions under their command. There were many extenuating circumstances in the generals’ defense: British troops had overall responsibility for guarding the base, and one of the cashiered generals had requested more troops to protect it a few months before. But Amos rightly decided that these factors were less important than the integrity of his service.
Now compare the CIA’s actions after the tragic suicide bombing at the agency’s base in Khost by Jordanian double agent Humam al-Balawi that killed seven CIA officers, the agency’s worst loss in several decades. The Jordanian, who had secretly been recruited by al-Qaeda, was allowed to enter the secure compound partly because it was judged too dangerous for agency officers to go outside to meet him. The Dec. 30, 2009, meeting was supervised by Jennifer Matthews, the chief of the Khost base, who won that job because of her outstanding work as a targeter, but who had little experience running operations in the field. She died in the attack.
The CIA conducted an extensive review of the Khost disaster. According to Joby Warrick in his authoritative history of the case, the review concluded that Matthews, supported by superiors in Kabul and at CIA headquarters, “failed to follow standard safety procedures in their meeting with Balawi. . . . Warnings that might have alerted the CIA to Balawi’s deception were never passed along.”
Yet no individuals were held responsible. The agency did change some security and training procedures, but “no single person or failure caused the disaster at Khost, the investigators found,” according to Warrick.
The CIA has been so battered and bruised by criticism over the years that there’s a perhaps understandable tendency to circle the wagons when crisis hits. That’s certainly what CIA Director Leon Panetta did at the time. After commentators (including me) had criticized the procedures that allowed the Khost attack, Panetta wrote a Jan. 10, 2010, op-ed piece for the Post saying it was wrong to criticize “poor tradecraft” for what had happened. Panetta wrote: “That’s like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.”
Actually, no. The Marine Corps insists on assigning responsibility when a base is attacked — but to the senior officers in the chain of command.
A final, obvious point: This issue of government accountability has special resonance this week, at a time when Congress has, in effect, gone AWOL in its responsibility to pass budget legislation. If a disciplinary board were to review this case, it would surely fault House Republicans who have held the budget hostage to their political demands. In theory, a kind of accountability exists for these reckless GOP members when they stand for reelection next year, but that has been undermined by redistricting, interest-group politics and other aspects of our political dysfunction.
Americans who are fed up with the breakdown of government should think about emulating what Gen. Amos did this week: He held people responsible for their actions by firing them.
UPDATED (5:00 p.m.): A senior U.S. official offered this comment: “The CIA and the Marine Corps both conducted exhaustive reviews of two vastly different, yet tragic, incidents. One set of findings called for institutional accountability given systemic lapses while the other called for individual accountability due to fundamental judgment lapses by commanders. There’s room for both in our system.”
I respectfully disagree. The Marines did it right.