The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Better to be thought incompetent than be responsible?

I expressed my amazement (May 9) that Centcom should have - the story goes - failed to disturb Rumsfeld's smug slumbers as soon as they got hold of the CD with the Abu Ghraib photos.

In a bureaucracy, surely the first role of the subordinate is to identify potential causes of embarrassment to his superior, and alert said superior so as to allow him to take evasive action. By that criterion, the brass at Centcom were miserable failures indeed.

It occurs to me that there may have been method in their madness: if a superior fails to establish procedures whereby he is told of things of which he ought to know, however embarrassing, he has failed administratively.

If, only the other hand, he is told about an embarrassing thing, he will - almost by definition - be forced to make a decision, in which his integrity will be tested. He may have the choice of suppressing information about the thing; or making false or misleading statements; or allowing politically damaging information to become public; or causing his country material, political or diplomatic loss.

There is, of course, the time element: information - like those photos - may be such as to demand immediate action from whoever is given it. Whereas they may well be desirable - or shall we say, expedient? - to postpone a difficult decision until it's someone else's watch; or to a less politically or diplomatically sensitive time. (In Iraq, we have June 30 and November 2 as two dates beyond which one might want to push a decision-point.)

Withholding information from a superior also dilutes responsibility for the matter: the subordinate and his superior are each in dereliction of his duty to an extent, but, rather like the old defence of contributory negligence, mere multiplicity tends towards exculpation. At the least, it muddies the waters.

It may have been foolish of Centcom to have expected the photos to remain out of the public domain ten long months until the US general election - but that's a mere contingency. If one's considering in principle the act of withholding information, it's far from clear that that is ipso facto unjustifiable as bureaucratic Realpolitik [1].

My guess is that history is replete with examples either way; none spring to mind, though.

  1. I'm not concerned with morality here!

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