HOLMES REPORT: Rumsfeld's role in prisoner scandal shows claiming responsibility also absolves blame

I'd like to take responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While I'm at it, I'd like to take responsibility for Pearl Harbor, My Lai, and the whole New Coke debacle.

I'd like to take responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While I'm at it, I'd like to take responsibility for Pearl Harbor, My Lai, and the whole New Coke debacle.

I can do this without much concern because, apparently, taking responsibility these days involves nothing more onerous than saying you're taking responsibility.

There was a time, not too long ago, when taking responsibility for something meant facing up to the consequences of your actions (or inactions). But as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld demonstrated last week, taking responsibility today has no consequences, unless you count a robust vote of confidence from your boss.

Rumsfeld has handled the recent prisoner-abuse scandal about as badly as possible, but that's of little consequence now because by "taking responsibility" he seems to have absolved himself of blame.

The fact that Rumsfeld created the permissive atmosphere in which this type of abuse could occur by insisting that the Geneva Convention did not apply to enemy combatants detained by the US is not to be held against him. (There's a striking parallel between Rumsfeld and Bush and Enron's dynamic duo of Skilling and Lay - the former created the warped culture in which abuses were winked at, while the latter seemed oblivious to the rot that was all around him.)

The fact that Rumsfeld sat on the scandal for almost six months will not tarnish his reputation with the current leadership. The Wall Street Journal actually tried to spin this as a point in Rumsfeld's favor in an editorial claiming that the military had started investigating the allegations months before they were reported by 60 Minutes II. But those investigations were conducted in secret, and even when they were under way, the Pentagon sought to prevent the release of the photographs that fueled public outrage. The whole crisis was handled in the least transparent way possible.

Even now, there's a reluctance to accept transparency. We are told there are more graphic images - the beating of prisoners, the rape of women and young men, and "inappropriate acts with a dead body" - yet to emerge. But they are being left to come out over weeks and perhaps months, keeping the story alive forever, rather than being released immediately. Meanwhile, cameras will not be allowed at the trial of the first soldier court-martialed for his role in the torture at Abu Ghraib - fueling suspicion that lower ranks will be railroaded to protect Rumsfeld and the generals.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole called the prisoner abuse scandal a "public relations Pearl Harbor." But the difference is we did this to ourselves. And the man who says he's responsible ought to be held accountable.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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