Obama, Pointing Fingers and The Reponsibility-Taking Tack

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Shortly after President Obama met his aides behind closed doors Tuesday in the Situation Room, a White House official emailed reporters a four-sentence quote Obama had uttered during the meeting. Three of the sentences focused on the seriousness of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, and the president’s displeasure at the failures of U.S. prevention efforts. But the fourth sentence was the most instructive, and forceful: “While there will be a tendency for finger pointing, I will not tolerate it.”

Bureaucratic infighting rarely raises blood pressure outside the Beltway, but when it comes to government blunders, the stupid squabbles that follow can sometimes be more damaging than the initial mistake. Already, there has been plenty of what you might expect, with department heads doing their best to spin the events to keep the heat off their team. Hillary Clinton probably set the standard on December 4, after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar. “Based on what we know now,” she said of the Christmas Day bombing attempt. “the State Department fully complied with the requirements set forth in the interagency process as to what should be done when a threat is – or when information about a potential threat is known.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was doing something similar when she claimed on CNN a couple weeks back that “the system worked” and that “the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly,” comments that she has since clarified and revised.

Obama made it a priority on Tuesday to make sure this sort of defensiveness does not continue. According to a senior administration official who was at the Situation Room meeting, “responsibility” was a sort of theme throughout. As I write in a Time.com story today:

As he addressed the heads of his intelligence, law enforcement and foreign affairs agencies, for whom the notion of failure was not at all abstract, the President spoke directly about his “solemn responsibility” to protect the American people, according to a senior Administration official who attended the meeting. “I take that responsibility, and I take it very seriously,” the President told his aides, making perfectly clear that there was no room for another series of errors. Shortly afterward, John Brennan, Obama’s top White House counterterrorism aide, spoke. “There are things we could do better,” he said. “I take my share of the responsibility in ensuring we have an up-to-date system that is agile and that challenges the assumptions the way this President wants.”