The fine art of never having to say you were wrong

Jonathan Alter

October 19, 1993|By Jonathan Alter

LAST spring Janet Reno became the star of the Clinton cabinet for her unorthodox approach to the aftermath of the assault on the Branch Davidian compound.

She said that she questioned her decision "every day" and emotionally described her feelings of loneliness.

Simply by acting accountable, Ms. Reno tapped perhaps the only remaining vein of respect that exists in this country for public officials. It's what made Harry Truman an icon.

Now we find out that the attorney general never actually fessed up that she messed up.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) was subjected to a blistering Treasury report on its gross mishandling of the initial raid of Feb. 28.

But when it was the Justice Department's turn to answer some hard questions about the final raid and fire of April 19, suddenly the only person who made any real mistakes was David Koresh.

"There is no place in the evaluation for blame," said Edward Dennis, the former Justice official who applied the thin coat of whitewash, "and no place for fault."

Of course this is merely a balder version of what routinely happens when the government tries to investigate itself.

Perhaps the most shameless permanent institution of this kind is the Senate Ethics Committee, which let four of the infamous Keating Five off with a wrist tap.

If you're Sen. Dave Durenberger, nervy enough to bill the Senate for use of a condominium you secretly own, official denunciation may follow.

But even in that case, the Senate as a whole voted to file a friend of the court brief on Durenberger's behalf in his pending criminal trial.

The ethics panel has acted for years like a frat-house rules committee -- wink, wink, nod, nod, you're still one of us.

The fate of Sen. Bob Packwood, accused by several women of unwanted sexual advances, will indicate whether anything has changed.

In the U.S. Navy, the old protect-your-own principle is being severely tested by the Tailhook scandal. Nearly three dozen senior officers are finally being brought to account for the harassment episode, and the Navy secretary is sounding tough.

But the fact remains that the mild punishment for Adm. Frank B. Kelso, chief of naval operations, was determined by a panel including none other than . . . Adm. Frank B. Kelso.

Local variations of wagon-circling are at least as bad.

The Internal Affairs Division of the New York City Police Department was revealed last month to be so corrupted by its cozy culture that it ignored evidence about dirty cops and actually investigated the good cops bringing the charges instead.

The arrest of NYPD Officer Michael Dowd for drug dealing was made by a suburban police force. "Cops don't tell on cops. If you tell, your career is ruined," said Bernard Cawley, a crooked cop, in testimony last month.

He might just as well have been talking about senators telling on other senators, or FBI agents assigned to Waco telling on other FBI agents assigned to Waco. The code of omerta extends a long way beyond the Corleone family.

So what happens when the public demands some admission of error? There's a whole language of fake accountability, like George Bush's famously passive "mistakes were made" formulation during Iran-contra.

For years, admission of alcoholism was a favorite ploy. But Packwood, for one, eventually realized it had become a useless cliche.

He opted instead for what has become the state-of-the-art approach, which is to make an omnibus apology to people who "were offended" but refuse to discuss details. (Disgraced former judge Sol Wachtler and disgraced former university president Richard Berendzen helped pioneer a new I'm-a-victim-too twist.)

The trick is to sound generally accountable, but specifically blameless.

Ms. Reno represents the latest refinement of this approach, though in her case it was probably unintentional. The key is the time lag between the event and the report.

In April, as Ms. Reno was becoming a hero, it might have been too early to answer specific questions (Why didn't the FBI listen to religious experts who said the Davidians would never surrender? Why was the tear-gas assault undertaken when the winds were high?).

But by the time the investigation was completed, the press was bored with Waco and barely noticed that these and dozens of other legitimate questions went unaddressed.

The only place that Ms. Reno herself is really taken to task is in a footnote. It turns out that she made what she later called "the toughest decision of my life" without fully informing herself.

According to the footnote, she "did not read the prepared statement carefully, nor did she read the supporting documentation." But beyond that, the report goes out of its way to rationalize every action taken by every official every day.

Take heart, Les Aspin. The defense secretary certainly didn't get a Reno-like ride out of admitting that he erred in not sending armor to Somalia.

But if Mr. Aspin can avoid being savaged in a congressional inquiry, he'll likely look forward to a Pentagon report that says no one made any real mistakes.

All of this confirms the importance of bringing back the independent counsel. Republicans in the Senate -- still steamed over Lawrence Walsh's endless Iran-contra probe -- are blocking efforts to renew the idea.

That's politically silly of them; they have the most to gain from any administration scandals.

Yes, the independent counsel's office should be restructured so that it doesn't feel so obliged to recommend criminal prosecution.

But it's the only way to make sure that public officials match the image of accountability with the reality of it, even after the cameras are shut off.

L Jonathan Alter is Newsweek's senior editor and media critic.

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