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Ivan Eland: Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Being the Government Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

By Ivan Eland*
March 30, 2004

The apology of Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism adviser to the Clinton and Bush administrations, for the U.S. government’s failure to protect its citizens on September 11 starkly contrasts with the U.S. government’s standard operating procedure. Sitting government officials, whether in Democratic or Republican administrations, rarely apologize for any transgressions of the state, no matter how grievous.

For example, the Clinton Justice Department never officially apologized to Richard Jewel, the man wrongly accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. More recently, several juveniles incarcerated in the U.S. government’s maximum security prison in Guantanamo, Cuba were released with a mere private apology after years of captivity with no charges ever being filed against them. Similarly, five British citizens were also released after being detained at the same facility for two years without being charged. Instead of the appropriate response of dropping to his knees, apologizing to them profusely and asking their forgiveness, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a Pentagon news conference, referred to their experience with totalitarian-like treatment in the following derisive way: “So they get interrogated for a couple of years. Then at some point you say we think we got what we need out of this crowd—five people—and let’s move them along.”

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations owe the American public an apology for the September 11 attacks, but officials from both have noticeably refused to do so. The most obvious avoidance of responsibility was by none other than Rumsfeld. In the wake of Clarke’s apology, Rumsfeld, on PBS’s Lehrer NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was asked whether he failed in the lead-up to September 11. His response was the rambling bureaucratic defense that his department was concerned with only combating external threats, not terrorists who infiltrate the country and attack it from within. However, published reports indicate that prior to September 11, the Department of Defense intercepted message traffic that would have provided some warning of the attacks if it had been translated promptly. That episode is one of the most damning indictments of government failure prior to September 11.

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, also avoided apologizing for government failures before September 11. She said, “I don’t think that there is anyone who is not sorry for the terrible loss that these families endured, and, indeed, who doesn’t feel the deep tragedy that the country went through on September 11th. I do think it’s important that we keep focused on who did this to us, because, after all, this was an act of war.” Of course, Rice is trying to divert the American media and American public’s attention to a foreign enemy from their recent focus on the government’s failure to fulfill its number one reason for being—protecting its citizens. But you have to have been in a coma for the last three years not to have focused on the monsters that perpetrated the September 11 attacks. The government reminds us of it everyday. The terrorists killed many innocent people and need to pay the price for what they did. But that’s not the issue.

And, surprisingly, neither is the main issue what the government could have done to detect and foil the September 11 attacks—although shrinking, rather than ballooning, the number and size of the intelligence bureaucracies would likely reduce the chances of a repeating the information-sharing fiasco that plagued the government’s pre-September 11 counterterrorism activities.

The real issue is whether the U.S. government contributed to the hatred that caused the September 11 attacks. The biggest, and least examined, failure to accept responsibility is by the president himself. He disingenuously has alleged that the terrorists attack us because they “hate our freedoms.” Yet they don’t seem to attack Switzerland and Sweden, countries that are equally free. Moreover, although the terrorists are killing innocent civilians, they are really attacking American targets because they hate the U.S. government’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. Poll after poll in Islamic countries indicate that American culture, technology and freedoms are popular but U.S. foreign policy is not. But we don’t have to rely on general polling data to understand why terrorists are attacking the United States. We just need to pay attention to what they are saying. Osama bin Laden, in his writings and media statements, does not fulminate against the decadent American culture, high technology or political and economic freedoms. He is primarily angry at U.S. support for corrupt dictators in Islamic nations and U.S. meddling in the Middle East.

In the short-term, Al Qaeda’s methods are heinous, and it must be neutralized. In the long-term, the U.S. government should engage in quiet introspection about whether its policies overseas—that is, unnecessary military interventions, such as the invasion of Iraq--are fanning the flaming anti-U.S. hatred in much of the Islamic world that ultimately endangers U.S. citizens.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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