WASHINGTON – America's leaders must "search their soul" over whether they failed the country on Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) says. Accepting blame is something else altogether.
In the two and a half years since al-Qaida terrorists hijacked airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 Americans, there have been no announced firings, demotions or resignations at the CIA, FBI, immigration service, White House, State Department, Pentagon or any other federal agency.
"It's been a mystery to us ... how so many mistakes were made and nobody's held accountable," said Lorie Van Auken, widowed on Sept. 11 and now a member of a victims' family steering committee. "The buck stops nowhere."
Former White House counterterror chief Richard Clarke (search) two weeks ago drew tears and gratitude from families — and criticism from Republicans — when he publicly apologized. "Your government failed you. ... I failed you," said Clarke, who resigned in 2003.
Few expect a similar statement from Clarke's former boss and President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, when she appears Thursday to testify before the Sept. 11 commission that is investigating government anti-terror efforts preceding the attacks.
Clarke, a counterterror adviser to the first President Bush (search) and President Clinton (search) as well as the current administration, is the only public official known to have publicly apologized for Sept. 11 failings. Republicans said he had no right to apologize for the government and was grandstanding to promote a new book criticizing Bush's handling of the counterterror war.
Still, the commission, due to report this summer on what went wrong, has already found plenty of government failure.
Flawed policy-making, bureaucratic breakdowns and poor communication among federal agencies helped make it possible for al-Qaida to flourish overseas, the commission has said in preliminary findings. The same flaws also made it possible for al-Qaida terrorists to get into America, take flying lessons, bypass airport and other security and hijack airliners, the commission has found.
"If you were in the private sector and you failed this colossally, you probably would be looking for a different job," said Van Auken, whose husband, Kenneth, died in the World Trade Center.
Not so in government. That's because the founding fathers' version of an orderly, accountable federal work force has mutated into a bureaucracy in which problems become systemic and nobody is held responsible, said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.
"If you look at the big government mistakes of the last 50 years, you will always find systemic underpinnings — taxpayers' abuse at IRS, the Challenger or Columbia disasters at NASA, missing laptops at Los Alamos," said Light, also a Brookings Institution scholar.
"The layers of career officials and political officials have never been deeper. ... Interagency confusion continues. It's very difficult to hold anybody responsible for what goes right or wrong in this hierarchy," he said.
There's also no tradition in American history, in contrast to Japan's, of anybody saying, "'It's my job, I was the administrator, we didn't do enough, it's time for me to leave,'" said Light.
And if thousands below them share some blame?
"So what?" said Bill Harvey, whose wife of one month, Sarah, died in the World Trade Center. "Am I going to be disappointed if 3,000 people are found to have been grossly negligent? I only care that people who were negligent in their jobs that day, or months or years leading up to it ... are not in those positions going forward.
In the days after Clarke's apology, news anchors on several television networks asked administration officials their opinion of Clarke's apology — and whether they felt any sense of failure.
Rumsfeld noted that domestic security isn't the Defense Department's responsibility, but added that all security officials should reflect on Sept. 11.
"Everybody involved in any position of responsibility for security has to search their soul and say, 'What else might have been done?'" Rumsfeld said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had reviewed over the years what he and his department did at the time.
"I wish we had been able to discover that these individuals were in our country and they were planning ... such horrible attacks," Powell said. "And so I'm deeply regretful."
Light believes thousands of others — federal employees, agents, CIA operatives and so on — have done the same.
Although they haven't publicly accepted responsibility, they may have privately, to themselves.
"I'm sure there are people at the FBI to this day who say 'I had the evidence in my hand,'" said Light.