Unaccountably Called to Account

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

So this is what accountability looks, sounds and feels like. It's been so long -- since George W. Bush moved into the White House -- that we hardly recognize what used to be a commonplace phenomenon, as much a part of Washington's behavioral DNA as megalomania and mendacity.

Imagine how surprised Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey must have been when Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired him last week over the shocking neglect of injured veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gates, who cut his teeth in George Bush the Elder's administration, obviously didn't get the memo about how blatant malfeasance is handled by George Bush the Younger's crew.

Remember what happened to George Tenet (the former CIA director who said it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction), Gen. Tommy Franks (who led the Iraq invasion, making decisions that allowed the insurgency to form) and Paul Bremer (who botched the Iraq occupation, allowing the insurgency to grow)? Bush gave them all the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Harvey would have had every right to expect the usual tut-tut from the White House. The commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, had already fallen on his sword. Never mind that Weightman had been in charge only since August, which means he inherited the situation. The post commander was resigning, and that should have been enough. Harvey needed an interim director to run Walter Reed, so he turned to the medical center's former commander, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, on whose watch the shabby treatment of outpatient vets became standard practice.

Gates was not amused, and the next day Harvey was out of a job. Kiley was out as well, at least as Walter Reed's chief. It's hard to believe, but the officials who presided over a terrible failure of government are actually being held accountable.

This administration's nonchalance about its most grievous transgressions has been stunning, and the only inference that fits the facts is that the people running our government don't really believe in government at all. They certainly haven't taken it seriously.

The White House has accepted even the worst outrages with a shrug. Look at what happened after the Abu Ghraib atrocities came to light. The low-ranking troops who tormented those prisoners were brought to justice. But senior officers -- who should have installed procedures and oversight that never would have let that kind of depravity take place -- were allowed to go their merry way. What message did this send to the Arab world?

The debacle after Hurricane Katrina was so total that the hapless FEMA director, Michael Brown of "heck of a job" fame, had to go. But what did the White House expect, after putting the former judges-and-stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association in charge of marshaling the nation's first response to the disaster? Why did the administration keep Brown on the payroll for weeks as a consultant? And now, with New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast still prostrate, is anyone being called onto the carpet?

Before Gates arrived, it was awfully difficult to get fired by this administration for failing to do your job. Brown hardly counts, since he never should have been hired in the first place. Donald Rumsfeld presided over the Iraq war mess for years before his policies were essentially rejected by the American people last November. Generally, though, incompetence has not been a firing offense.

Political incorrectness, on the other hand, seems to be more than enough to get you shoved aside.

In December, the Justice Department fired eight U.S. attorneys -- top federal prosecutors -- in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington and Arkansas. The administration acknowledges that one of the prosecutors, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, was ousted so his job could be given to a former aide to White House political czar Karl Rove. Hey, what's wrong with that?

Another of the fired prosecutors, David C. Iglesias, said he was being pressured by two members of Congress to speed up a criminal investigation that involved a Democratic legislator. The pressure came last fall, before the midterm election, Iglesias said. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) admitted on Sunday that he called Iglesias and asked about the investigation, saying he was looking for "an idea of what time frame we were looking at" -- but he denies pressuring Iglesias.

The White House acknowledges that complaints from members of Congress factored into the decision to fire the prosecutors, who say they had no prior indication of unhappiness with their performance.

Do a good job, do a bad job -- who cares? With his quaint ideas about accountability, clearly Robert Gates doesn't understand how this White House works.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company