Saturday, March 7, 2009

Exemplary accountability

Most bureaucracies are a study in non-accountability. Small infractions — and enemies — are punished mercilessly, and real successes are largely ignored. People get ahead by not making mistakes, making lots of friends and often by sheer brown-nosing.

The US military descended to these depths in the recrimination after Vietnam. And at times, big fish have been protected while little fish were fried. But generally during the past 25 years, the military has been the one government institution where (unlike Congress) where accountability has been the norm.

On December 8, a Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet experienced two engine failures during a 47 minute training exercise. The second failure occurred on final approach to Miramar Air Station in San Diego. The pilot attempted to crash the plane into a canyon, but it instead hit a house and four people died.

Less than three months later, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing held a press conference on Tuesday which said the fatal accident was due to “supervisory error and a chain of wrong decisions.” (Of course, one local congresswoman couldn’t resist grandstanding to get her name on TV).

The day after the crash, the man who lost his wife, two kids and mother-in-law showed forgiveness for those responsible:

At the news conference, [Don] Yoon said he's not angry with the pilot whose errant jet caused the carnage.

“I don't have any hard feelings,” Yoon said. “I know he did everything he could.”
This week, the swift candor of the Marines brought praise from Yoon's attorney and residents of the neighborhood (including an ex-Navy pilot who is my former coworker):
Feldman said the victims' family was briefed on the findings. “The Yoon and Lee families appreciate the candor and sensitivity shown to them as they continue to mourn for their loved ones,” Feldman said in a statement.

Tina Neubauer of Yorba Linda, the pilot's mother, sounded close to tears when asked how her son was coping in the aftermath of the crash.

“This is a tough time,” she said.

Residents were startled that the Marine Corps readily took responsibility for the crash.

“The Marines aren't trying to hide from it or duck it. They took it on the chin,” said Bob Johnson, who lived behind the Yoons and barely escaped the crash with his wife, daughter and 2-year-old grandson.

Ron Belanger, a retired Navy transport pilot who lives less than a block from the crash site, said he was surprised to learn the safety violations were more serious than the Marine Corps first revealed.

Belanger and other neighbors formed a group called Citizens Advocating Safe Aviation to push the Marines into investigating thoroughly and limiting future flights over University City. He, too, was impressed by the Marines' honesty.
In this morning’s WSJ, Reagan speechwriter turned maudlin pundit Peggy Noonan used the incident to make a broader point:
This wasn't damage control, it was taking honest responsibility. And as such, in any modern American institution, it was stunning.

The day after the report I heard from a young Naval aviator in predeployment training north of San Diego. He flies a Super Hornet, sister ship to the plane that went down. He said the Marine investigation "kept me up last night" because of how it contrasted with "the buck-passing we see" in the government and on Wall Street. He and his squadron were in range of San Diego television stations when they carried the report's conclusions live. He'd never seen "our entire wardroom crowded around a television" before. They watched "with bated breath."

At the end they were impressed with the public nature of the criticism, and its candor: "There are still elements within the government that take personal responsibility seriously." He found himself wondering if the Marines had been "too hard on themselves." "But they are, after all, Marines."

By contrast, he says, when the economy came crashing down, "nowhere did we see a board come out and say: 'This is what happened, these are the decisions these particular people made, and this was the result. They are no longer a part of our organization.'

There was no timeline of events or laymen's explanation of how a credit derivative was actually derived. We did not see congressmen get on television with charts and eviscerate their organization and say, 'These were the men who in 2003 allowed Freddie and Fannie unlimited rein over mortgage securities.'

Instead we saw . . . everybody against everybody else with no one stepping forth and saying, 'We screwed up.'" There is no one in national leadership who could convincingly "assign blame," and no one "who could or would accept it."

1 comment:

Doug Klein said...

A stunning story. What more can I say. Only the Marines could see it this clearly. Thank you.