The anniversaries of Katrina and 9/11 have made me think again about what is sorely missing in our nation holding senior federal officials truly accountable for their worst actions, misdeeds, and errors. What has been missing is obvious to many Americans, namely the prosecution of federal employees, particularly political appointees, for their criminal negligence.
When these public servants fail to foresee otherwise avoidable dangers or are willfully blind to them, then they should pay the highest price when their negligence causes many deaths and injuries. In other words, justice is due when there is a wanton disregard for human life. Often this results because individuals have traded-off their sacred duty to serve the public interest for personal, political, or bureaucratic reasons or rewards. Such federal officials are as guilty as an automobile driver under the influence of alcohol or some drug who kills someone and gets prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide.
Who comes to mind? Let's start with the many feds that did not prevent the totally predicted Katrina catastrophe and the many that utterly failed to provide timely emergency assistance to the thousands of Americans in dire trouble. Then let's think about the many officials that did not prevent the 9/11 catastrophe. And how can we forget the many high level feds that did not kill or capture Osama bin Laden when they had the opportunity. Most important, let's indict all the high level feds that have screwed up the Iraq war by employing a strategy that took no account of what would happen after the initial success to take Baghdad. Many thousands of American soldiers have died or incurred serious injuries because of the blunders by top civilian leaders.
The more you think about it, the worse it gets. How about those officials obligated to protect the public by, for example, ensuring adequate supplies of vaccines? And those that are expected to develop and deploy emergency plans in the event of diverse natural disasters and terrorism attacks? Is it not crystal clear to nearly all Americans that many federal officials have failed to correctly foresee various avoidable threats and dangers and have been willfully blind to them?
We fill our prisons with enormous numbers of conventional criminals, but impose no penalties for "white collar" government officials that cause the deaths of far more people than even serial killers.
To show that I am not alone in this thinking here are what some others have observed:
Katrina brought thinking about criminal negligence to the forefront. Larry C. Johnson, a former federal official, wrote an article titled "Criminal Negligence and Katrina" in September 2005 right after the event, and said: "The provocative title is intentional. Why did the Bush Administration fail to act according to the National Response Plan they created in December of 2004 to deal with an incident like Katrina? What do you do when the words on the paper don't match the action in the field? People are dying today in New Orleans because of the failure to provide immediate aid and are dead in part because of the negligence of Michael Chertoff. That is a harsh judgment, but if you will take time to read the National Response Plan that was signed into effect in December of 2004 there is no other reasonable conclusion." Others also saw the Katrina-criminal negligence nexus, particularly when Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard bemoaned on national TV "Bureaucracy has committed murder."
Mike Whitney wrote: "Once again, we see that the media narrative closely matches the political agenda of the Bush White House obfuscating the widely-acknowledged facts. Katrina was not "a failure of imagination" as the media would have us believe. Rather, it was a blatant act of criminal negligence." Norman Solomon said: "The Bush administration is guilty of criminal negligence that killed thousands of people last week." Ttyler5 who was actually assisting in the Katrina rescue activities wrote at the time: "Nagin, Ebbert and Blanco are guilty of the worst case of criminal negligence in the history of the US, and those of us who are working in this relief effort are gonna see to it they are prosecuted for it." Stanleyg5 wrote this month about the lessons of Katrina: "The first lesson we should have learned is that our government officials can commit criminal negligence homicide and no one is prosecuted." That's the point. That's the problem. And for the final voice of wisdom: "There are people dying and (the U.S. government is) not putting the boats in the water. I think that's criminal negligence. I don't think anybody ever anticipated the criminal negligence of the Bush administration in this situation," said actor Sean Penn.
Recently, James Zogby wrote the article "Criminal Negligence" in July 2006 because of the military actions in Lebanon, opening with: "Criminal negligence. That is the best face I can put on the Administration's current handling of Middle East policy."
In December 2004, the International Action Center released a statement regarding the enormous number of deaths resulting from the Asian tsunami. Their point was U.S. criminal negligence: "Lack of funding for an inexpensive, low-tech early warning system is simply criminal negligence. ...It is telling that the NOAA was able to get the warning to the US Navy base in the area, but wouldn't pick up the phone and call the civil authorities in the region to warn them. They made sure that a US military base was notified and did almost nothing to issue a warning to the civilian inhabitants who were in the direct path of the wave--a warning that might have saved thousands of lives. This is criminal negligence."
In June 2006, Dave Lindorff including the following among the reasons for impeaching President Bush: "Criminal negligence in failing to provide American troops with adequate armor before sending them into a war of choice, criminal negligence in going to war against a weak, third-world nation without any planning for post-war occupation and reconstruction, criminal negligence in failing to respond to a known and growing crisis in the storm-blasted city of New Orleans, and criminal negligence in failing to act, and in fact in actively obstructing efforts by other countries and American state governments, to deal with the looming crisis of global warming."
Wanton disregard for human life that's what criminal negligence is all about, and by now the names of many former and current federal officials have surely come to you, certainly including President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And let's not forget or forgive members of congress. Ultimately, prosecution for criminal negligence is the best way to implement accountability for senior federal officials. So the question is "not when" but "if" justice will ever prevail? What a barrier to overcome: the disinterest of the federal Justice Department to pursue criminal indictments.