Accepting Responsibility, With an Asterisk

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 16, 2006

President Bush in 2000 ushered in the Era of Personal Responsibility. Yesterday ushered in the Era of Qualified Personal Responsibility.

In hours-long testimony before a Senate committee, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he took the blame for the department's failures responding to Hurricane Katrina. "I am responsible for the Department of Homeland Security," came the inevitable claim. "I'm accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department."

At the same time, Vice President Cheney, breaking four days of silence since accidentally shooting a man on Saturday, was scheduling a confessional on Fox News. "You can't blame anybody else," Cheney told Brit Hume. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

But, try though they might, neither Chertoff nor Cheney could come up with much in the way of what he had done wrong.

"I have to say that the idea that this department and this administration and the president were somehow detached from Katrina is simply not correct," Chertoff testified, contradicting a House committee report released yesterday that found the secretary exercised his responsibilities "late, ineffectively, or not at all."

Cheney, similarly, said the way he handled disclosure of the shooting -- leaving a private citizen to announce it to a local newspaper the next day -- was spot-on. "I thought that was the right call," he said. "I still do."

Since Bush won the presidency in 2000 with a promise to usher in a "new era of personal responsibility," a public acceptance of culpability is de rigueur when something goes wrong.

But admitting mistakes is an entirely different matter. That could convey weakness and, as such, is to be avoided entirely. Hours after branding the federal response to Katrina "unacceptable," for example, Bush qualified that by saying, "I am satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with all the results."

Cheney, speaking to Fox News yesterday, performed a similar routine. He offered a stark claim of responsibility. "Well, ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry."

But in the same interview, Cheney pointed out that "there was a little bit of a gully there, so he was down a little ways before land level. . . . And the sun was directly behind him. That affected the vision, too, I'm sure."

And the vice president admitted no fault in creating the four-day firestorm. "I'm comfortable with the way we did it, obviously," he said. "You can disagree with that, and some of the White House press corps clearly do."

Cheney stuck by his decision to have the ranch owner make the announcement ("she was the most credible one") and said that "I can't say" the incident might change his love of hunting.

Likewise, from the start of his appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday, Chertoff interspersed claims of responsibility with assignments of blame elsewhere.

He blamed the weather. "This was a storm of unprecedented magnitude," he said, rattling off statistics.

He blamed the department he inherited, which, "barely two years old, had a lot of work to do." He added: "Frankly, FEMA was strained in past emergencies."

Mostly, though, he blamed subordinates. "I was conscious of the fact that although I'm the secretary, I'm not a hurricane operator," Chertoff explained. "I do not have 30 years of experience managing hurricanes, and I do not see myself in a position to contradict or second-guess operational decisions."

Chertoff did blame himself for one thing: trusting then-FEMA director Mike "Brownie" Brown. "If I had known then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something differently," the secretary said. He blamed Brown for misleading him about help from the Pentagon, and for not getting buses to evacuate people.

"Thursday night, I asked myself, 'Are we dealing with a situation where it's not just the inherent overwhelming challenge, but that maybe, despite good intentions, Mr. Brown is really not up to this?' " Chertoff recalled, citing his own "nudging, prodding, poking and ultimately raising my voice" at underlings.

The secretary took a more benign view of his own actions, defending his decision to attend an avian flu conference in Atlanta in the middle of the hurricane crisis. And he defended even some obvious misstatements, such as Bush's assertion that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

"My understanding is he meant what I meant," Chertoff said, "which is that the perception was that, although it would not have been a surprise on Monday morning to learn about breaches of levees, based on what -- speaking for myself -- I knew Monday evening, thinking it was over, I was surprised on Tuesday morning."

The senators were not so quick to absolve Chertoff. Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) called him "curiously disengaged." The ranking Democrat, Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), scolded Chertoff for "your failure to take much more aggressive action."

The secretary urged the senators to look on the positive side of accountability. "I do think we have to acknowledge things that succeeded," he advised. "I'm going to take responsibility for what the department did, but I'm also going to take responsibility for identifying solutions for the problems."

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