Not Guilty by Reason of Ignorance

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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56 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I have no idea what you are trying to do with this satire. Is it a slatepitch for the cynics point of view?Report

  2. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Why not just apportion responsibility depending on both proximity to senior decision makers and degree of negligence exhibited? Holding the President of the US responsible for every undertaking of the 2.5 million federal employees is casting the net a bit wide – some IRS civil servants in Cincinnati decide to use “tea party” and “occupy” as shortcuts in targeting applicant groups for closer scrutiny. That’s pretty far from the orbit of the Executive Office of the President. If there’s communication from EOP to Cincinnati saying “Time for some tax trouble for tea partiers”, then there’s something worth putting on principals.

    As for degree of negligence, that’s a “what scrutiny did it get from higher ups?” issue. The counter to plausible deniability is posing the question: Were principals willfully ignorant? Joking about an issue at press conferences, as Chris Christie did early on, not the wisest course. Also, there’d been something like four months of reporting on elements of bridgegate prior to the smoking gun emails and Christie’s marathon press conference. The high-powered internal inquiry (e.g. hiring Randy Mastro) needed to happen months ago.

    It’s unimaginable that a present-day Nixon would lose his job.

    Regarding Nixon, well obstructing justice is never a wise course. Also, the Saturday Night Massacre is representative of faulty decisions traceable to Nixon for which we can hold him accountable. I don’t see how any president survives a Saturday Nigh Massacre type situation. One’s nearly spoilt for choice when discussing Nixon – when you have White House discussions of burglarizing and possibly firebombing the Brookings Institution, something’s seriously gone gravely wrong.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      I think you missed Vikram’s point about Nixon. If a president’s staff just does stuff without bothering to ask/inform the president, then a president doesn’t need to panic about an investigation, hence s/he wouldn’t find a Saturday Night Massacre necessary. So, no Saturday Night Massacre, no personal consequences, hence, as Vikram said, so way a present-day Nixon loses his job.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        You may be right there but his equating the IRS scandal, F&F or Benghazi with the bridge foofaraw is so facile that it might as well have been lifted straight off of NRO.
        The IRS issue shows no indication that anyone in the Obama administration had any awareness or involvement with it. No evidence has been found, also, to suggest that it was malicious rather than a merely bureaucratic misfire.
        Ditto F&F on all counts.
        Benghazi on the other hand doesn’t even have an actual scandal attached at all. Some state department officials (cheif among them the lamentably dead Ambassador himself) were considerably more sanguine about security in Libya than would have been advised and some people got killed in an attack. There isn’t any malfeasance at all and whatever competency issues one can raise (and personally I don’t think it’s very much ) can barely reach Hillary’s desk let alone Obama’s.

        This bridge deal, on the other hand, has direct evidence that Christie’s immediate subordinates were engaged in malicious intentional misgovernment. The only question is whether their boss was directing it or encouraging it himself or whether he merely winked at it or at the least fostered a culture that encouraged it. It’s apples and turdblossoms.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Just to clarify: you are the one who brought up Benghazi.

        At any rate, I’m not suggesting any equivalence among any of it. Watergate isn’t on the same level as Bridge-gate, but you were not offended on Christie’s behalf.

        What I am stating is that as a general principle that politicians be held accountable for what their administrations do. To make that claim, it’s not a requirement for me to find choose symmetric scandals.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        @jm3z-aitch
        Is there any way a Chief of Staff, or similar high-level presidential staffer plans to firebomb and burglarize a DC think tank without the President getting the blame? If you’re plotting felonies from the staff of a principal, that’s just a recipe for trouble for the principal – including the principal losing their job. I don’t think plausible deniability provides sufficient cover. There’s the tone setting issue, who built the environment where this sort of thing is acceptable?

        Certainly, if aiming to win news cycles they’re pushed well off message – press about the scandal and not whatever message the office is hoping to deliver. At minimum, the attention of an administration is divided by devoting staff time to responding to subpoenas and investigations. If not completely derailing an administration’s hoped for agenda and replacing it with a drumbeat of “what did he know and when did he know it?” At some point, if an administration is spending all its political capital to forestall impeachment/resignation, they’ve effectively lost their job anyway.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Is there any way a Chief of Staff, or similar high-level presidential staffer plans to firebomb and burglarize a DC think tank without the President getting the blame?

        Move the goalposts to a convenient enough place and you win the argument by default.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        @jm3z-aitch
        “My senior staff decided to plan felonies without my knowledge or consent.” Doesn’t seem like solid ground to me. After all, “It’s unimaginable that a present-day Nixon would lose his job.” is a pretty strong claim. Nixon senior staff touched all sorts of sketchy stuff. I think those empowered to launch impeachment proceedings can evaluate plausible deniability claims and in some subset of cases find them wanting.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Creon,

        I’m not going to be drawn in.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Why not just apportion responsibility depending on both proximity to senior decision makers and degree of negligence exhibited?

      I’m open to that being a consideration in the amount of blame allocated.

      Holding the President of the US responsible for every undertaking of the 2.5 million federal employees is casting the net a bit wide…

      I don’t think “well it’s too big of an organization to manage effectively” is a good excuse when you have spent millions of dollars and over a year convincing the public that you are the right man to manage the organization effectively. Yes, it’s impossible to personally monitor 2.5 million people, but it is nevertheless your task to endeavor to keep them from doing horrible things.

      some IRS civil servants in Cincinnati decide to use “tea party” and “occupy” as shortcuts in targeting applicant groups for closer scrutiny

      It’s foreseeable that if you give people the power to search for specific groups to target that some among them will abuse that power. It would be nice to see a fix to that root cause. That is the way to begin to get a handle on the 2.5 million.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        convincing the public that you are the right man to manage the organization effectively

        Well there’s a “ “I didn’t come here to build outhouses in Peoria.” element to seeking the presidency. Managing the bureaucracy you sit atop is part of the job, but that’s not the Big Idea of any administration: more redistribution, less redistribution, ending wars, starting wars… Those are president level stuff. But Operation Wide Receiver, Fast and Furious, gun walking, the details of those things before they blow up in the media are well clear of the White House level. And I don’t see an institutional design that would flag such issues, beforehand, at that White House level, without impossibly swamping any White House staff.

        Also, I don’t think unmanageable is the right description. Here’s a perspective from Obama during the Obama-Clinton 60 Minutes interview, emphasis mine,

        You know, I remember Bob Gates, you know, first thing he said to me, I think maybe first week or two that I was there and we were meeting in the Oval Office and he, obviously, been through seven presidents or something. And he says, “Mr. President, one thing I can guarantee you is that at this moment, somewhere, somehow, somebody in the federal government is screwing up.” And, you know you’re– and so part of what you’re trying to do is to constantly improve systems and accountability and transparency to minimize those mistakes and ensure success.

        There is an element of “endeavor to keep them from doing horrible things” in Obama’s description. But the presidency doesn’t have the capacity to quash every Fast and Furious level screwup beforehand.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        If that’s the case, then we really ought to admit that democracy (sort of) helps keep a politician and his immediate staff accountable rather than saying it keeps government accountable.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        It’s foreseeable that if you give people the power to search for specific groups to target that some among them will abuse that power.

        Perhaps it’s foreseeable, but it’s also not established that it happened in this IRS episode. The regulation on granting official 501(c)(4) status says that an organization must be “operated primarily for the purpose of bringing about civic betterments and social improvements.” That category excludes seeking to elect or diselect people from political office. So the IRS is charged with determining if groups *applying for the status* aren’t primarily interested in electioneering. They selected a group of terms in groups names among 501c(4) applicants that they thought suggested that a group might be engaged in electioneering, including terms that identified both conservative and liberal groups, and investigated a sampling of the resulting groups. To my mind, abuse has not been established here, foreseeable or not. Poorly thought-out administration, perhaps, but you’d have to argue to establish abuse to me.

        But moreover, what power are you actually looking to take away from the agency in this case? The ability to make informed decisions about which of a group of applications for a tax status for which political activity bears on eligibility bears greater scrutiny than others? You can say yes, but then you’d be criticizing Obama for not enacting a veritable revolution in administrative practice compared to basically all of U.S. history upon coming into office. And you’d have to explain how it is you expect agencies to perform their functions without exercising judgement that is developed on the basis of years and years of institutional experience in the subject-area of administration that it operates in year after year (judgment which, yes, occasionally fails and makes a faulty decision).Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    I agree, a political leader is responsible per se for what their officials do – that’s their job. Ministerial responsibility works like this in Westminster countries – if a Department or Ministry makes a major error or commits some serious malfeasance, the Minister will generally have to resign, even if they had no idea it was happening. After all, its their job to know what is happening.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      At least US federal level, that’s an extraordinarily difficult job. There is a huge culture and information divide between the temporary political people — elected or appointed — and the permanent bureaucracy. A friend of mine high up in the bureaucracy of one of the federal agencies describes it roughly as, “The appointees don’t want to listen — they want to set policy and have it executed. They don’t want to deal with details — that takes up time that could be “better” spent with other members of their class, establishing relationships that will get them a good position when the temporary political assignment is over. Even the ones that are actually concerned with doing a good job are handicapped because the bureaucracy doesn’t trust them to do what’s best for the bureaucracy, and so keeps secrets from the appointees.”Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        At least US federal level, that’s an extraordinarily difficult job.

        These folks apply for these jobs and are remarkably insistent upon getting them. They are not fast-food workers who lack any alternative means to feed their families.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        @michael-cain

        1) If someone isn’t prepared to do their job, instead of seeing it as a mere springboard to another job, then they should find another job.

        2) If it’s gotten to the point where the permanent bureaucracy is routinely hiding things from the appointees then something has gone horribly wrong.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        @james-k
        In a nutshell, you’ve hit the difference between the bottom-level appointee and the top-level bureaucrat: the appointee knows he/she is a temp (generally in four years or less) and the bureaucrat isn’t going anywhere else. The appointee knows he/she is likely going to be graded on conformance to ideology first. So we get things like the appointees rewriting technical reports done by the bureaucrats to meet ideological needs, or issuing directives about what should be investigated and what shouldn’t. Civil service rules grew out of a need to keep the appointment system from effectively running much deeper and pushing out the real expertise every few years. And you’re right — it’s broken, badly.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    My first comment was a miss post. I think you are underestimating political partisanship. How many people are gleeful about using power to punish the other side?Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Excellent point. The Ervin committee was a bipartisan investigation, with, for insistence, Howard Baker of Tennessee interested in finding out “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Nixon’s downfall came when Republicans like Barry Goldwater were advising him to resign. The Clinton impeachment was a much more party-line affair, and since then partisanship has only increased.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I think that, as a general rule, the fall occurs after support is lost within one’s own party. The good news is that when things get bad enough, the teammates do run for cover.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      ND,
      My concern that politicians get punished in a partisan way when their administrations do something wrong << My concern that politicians escape punishment because they have little idea of what goes on in their administrationsReport

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Mark Thompson and I — he a long-time and current New Jersey resident and me a long-time but now former New Jersey resident — discussed this a bit behind the scenes. A question I wanted to ask him but never got the opportunity was this:

    If you had to assess Christie’s likely responsibility in the matter, which of the following would you choose:
    1.) Christie was directly involved in planning and orchestrating the event.
    2.) Christie was not directly involved but was aware it was happening and allowed it to continue.
    3.) Christie was not directly involved and only came to know about it after the fact, at which point he participated in the cover up
    4.) Christie was not directly involved nor did he know about it until the emails were leaked, but he is responsible for creating an institutional culture where such behavior would seem appropriate or even expected
    5.) Christie was not directly involved, had no knowledge of the happenings, and bears no responsibility for it

    There are probably some other possibilities, but those seem to be the big dividing lines. My hunch for a while now has been #4: I don’t think he knew about it or would have advised or condoned it had he known (even if only because he realized the idiocy of the maneuver), but he seems to have cultivated a culture wherein such behavior is the norm. As such, he bears a great deal of responsibility.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I agree that #4 is by far the most likely scenario, as it fits with his public persona and the reputation that surrounds him. The creation of an institutional culture is the principal responsibility of an apex-level executive.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        I think we are all pretty much in agreement that #1-3 are unacceptable, to the point of requiring resignation. Where I think I disagree is in the sharp contrast between #4 and #5. Not being directly involved and having no knowledge of the happenings does not mean you bear no responsibility. When you’re a manager, it’s your job to manage your staff. #4 and #5 are just about the same.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        To my mind, whether there is a difference between 4 and 5 is whether or not you can establish a pattern. If you can, there isn’t much difference between the two. If you can’t, it’s something that happened that shouldn’t have and I can move past it much more easily.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I do not suggest that failing to create a healthy institutional culture is a reason to pull Christie out of office. But I’m sympathetic to the idea that it means the voters ought not to give him a promotion, lest the kind of culture he does foster find itself rooted in the White House.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Kazzy, do 1-5 refer to the bridge lane closures, or using federal Sandy relief funds to leverage Hoboken into permitting a development project for his buddy?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Bridge. Pretty sure the commercials are worse.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        If it’s the bridge, then it seems we don’t have enough evidence to justifiably ascribe any of 1-5, except by applying a general presumption of innocence as a starting point.

        Also, what commercials?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Oh… He spend Sandy relief money on a shore ad campaign featuring his family that cost $4M+ instead of one without costing $2M+. During campaign season.

        I agree that this is wholly presumptuous. It’s a “If you had to guess…”Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Not much to add to this, except that I agree with it wholeheartedly.Report

  7. Avatar Notme says:

    Hey , if it works for Obama why shouldn’t everyone else get a pass? Oh wait, Christie is a Repub so the NYT and every other liberal rag will spend a lot of time on it..Report

  8. Avatar DRS says:

    I’ve worked for politicians in office and while ministerial accountability (the Canadian term) is not as strong in the practice as in the ideal, almost everyone would agree that the politician is responsible for the activities of his political staff, his office staff and those public officials (s)he directly appointed to agencies or offices that report to her/him.

    So, yeah, Christie’s responsible for this one. At the very least he’s responsible for giving the impression to the perpetrators that he would have been fine with their activities had he known about them. (And no, I don’t think he did know about them. But nobody forced him at gunpoint to be governor and if you can’t stand the heat…)

    It’s also been my observation that the public doesn’t get too upset about politicians going after each other but does pay more attention when a politician is seen to be going after the public. As Jon Stewart said, it’s hard to see how the bridge closure actually hurt the town’s mayor: “he’s the one guy who’s got to stay there”.Report

  9. I am pausing in my reading to comment that I misread “literarily” as “literally,” which… made my first impression of your meaning very different indeed.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      The possibility of momentary confusion was pretty much the reason I used the word, which probably goes against all the rules for good writing, but I have never claimed to be a good writer.Report

  10. Avatar Kazzy says:

    @vikram-bath is right that I should have a 4.5: Didn’t know, wasn’t involved, didn’t contribute to an atmosphere, but still bears some responsibilityReport

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Yeah, even if he didn’t know and didn’t really create or contribute to an atmosphere, this runs high enough up the ladder that he put his trust in people that he shouldn’t have. In which case, that’s not impeachable and it’s not necessarily a decisive factor against a promotion, but it is definitely a non-negligible scratch in the negative column.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Personally, I think RockefellerHobokenPortAuthoritySandy-gate will be much worse. We’ll see what happens to his approval ratings after that story gets legs. 🙂Report

  11. Avatar Shazbot9 says:

    The claim, “I had no idea my staff was doing that” is either,

    A.) A good excuse all of the time.

    B.) Never a good excuse.

    C.) Sometimes a good excuse depending on a complex mix of contextual factors.

    D.) MSM are Obama-lovin hypocrites. Buy gold before it is too late.

    I’ll say the answer is C.) and that anyone who thinks the answer is A or B is a troll who hasn’t thought this through. People who believe D.) are at least honest fools.

    Here are some, but not all, of the factors referred to in “C”:

    1. How senior was the person who committed the sin and how closely did they work with the person claiming ignorance? (So if a low level IRS officer does something wrong, Obama can say “I didn’t know” and it would be a good excuse. But the same isn’t true if someone’s chief of staff committed the sin that someone claimed not to know about. Blaiming Obama for Sebelius’ failures might be a good example.)

    2. Was the person who committed the sin performing an action that the person claiming ignorance of would ordinarily be involved in? For example, if Cheney ordered such and such that a president would ordinarily order, without Bush’s awareness, then Bush is responsible for not being aware. In the Christie case, the decision to enact illegal political retribution and shutdown roads seems like a decision a governor would be involved with.

    3. Was the person who committed the sin following rules or a pattern of behavior (or a culture or group dynamic) created by and maintained the person who is now claiming ignorance? This is a question in the Christie case. The Nixon case is illustrative here. People knew what Nixon would order them to do so he didn’t have to actually order them and be aware that they would do it.

    4. How many people worked for the person claiming ignorance at the level of the person who committed the sin? It is impossible to be aware of the actions of thousands and therefore (given that ought implies can), you ought not to be held responsible for not being aware of those actions. This is similar to 1. Thus the whole of the IRS at all levels is different than senior members of the governors office. You can keep track of one but not the other.

    5. Were there prior warning signs that the person would act this way that the ignorant party chose to ignore and should’ve seen, e.g. staff meetings where people talked about political retribution that Christie didn’t address?

    6. Was the sinful act immediately and thoroughly investigated by the ignorant party? Or did the ignorant party choose to deflect questions and accusations while stymying investigators.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      This is a thoroughly fantastic comment.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Well put. I do think you are being a bit too dovish about distance from the wrongdoing though. These are executives who are supposed to figure out ways to manage large organizations. There are ways to enact controls without having personal contact with a person.Report

    • Avatar Mo says:

      7) What priority is the policy being executed for the administration. For example, one could say that web design is sufficiently distant from the president, there are numerous web designers working on the project, etc. However, they were executing the president’s keystone legislation. For the president to claim that he wasn’t kept abreast of the operations and didn’t have the interest to make sure it was properly being executed is pretty inexcusable.Report

  12. Avatar zic says:

    The dynamic here is echoed through the political system; plausible deniability.

    Take PACs, for instance. They’re not supposed to coordinate with the campaigns. Yet it’s also obvious that they do things campaigns want done and cannot do themselves.

    In the political sphere, there’s some unspoken method of giving commands for all the things that overstep the boundaries, anything that might require plausible deniability that we’ve laid out in law. And someone who will fall on his sword — Scooter Libby, anyone? — to protect the folks who sit where, supposedly, where the buck stops.

    What disturbs me is that this has triggered a flurry of investigations to find more of Christie’s misdoings. That seems such a tiny net. Is this kind of political payback/punishment common?

    Inquiring minds would like to know.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      We could launch an investigation to see whether the investigations were politically motivated.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        But right afterwards you have to call “and no more investigations”.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @vikram-bath, the head of the agency that launches an investigation is taking responsibility for the investigation. The agency’s henchmen don’t launch an investigation in such a manner as to create plausible deniability for their boss. Even for politically-motivated mud slinging investigations.

        Darrell Issa likes to take credit for his work, he doesn’t demand his staff take credit. Even when his work is politically motivated. Even when it costs $$$ and reveals no wrong doing.Report

  13. Avatar Damon says:

    I tend to have a simplistic view of responsiblity. You either should have known or did know. Maybe, in a fast developing situation, you might be a bit behind the curve, but not for long. So, bottom line, the buck stops with you. You picked the guy, you outlined the policy, you hired the stafff, you own the bitch. Anyone who hids info from you as leader should be fired. If you wanted him to hide the info, see above, and you’re to blame. Every example used above: IRS, Bengazi, F&F, Bridgegate is covered. There is no partial blame. Someone on your staff or down the food chain screwed up. Own it, fix it. Hiding from responsiblity is what politicians do and that’s why they are generally loathsome individuals.Report

  14. Avatar Kim says:

    Vik,
    I’m sorry, just when did the Clintons start letting underlings write their Christmas Party lists FOR THEM?
    Political retribution ALWAYS comes from the top. If nothing else, because underlings can’t be trusted to know all the games being played at the moment.

    And since when did the Clintons actually need to deny writing people off their Christmas Party list?

    And Nixon was UNBELIEVABLY petty.Report

  15. How many people, and who are they, are actually claiming that Christie’s alleged ignorance of what was going on exonerates him? Or Obama’s? I’m sure they exist, and some of the comments here do approach something like apologetics, at least for some of the things that happened on Obama’s watch.

    Stating that one was ignorant isn’t necessarily special pleading for innocence. It can be a factual claim made while taking ownership of an issue. I didn’t follow the Cincinnati/IRS controversy all that closely, but it seems to me that Obama didn’t rest on ignorance. Rather, he took steps to look into what was happening and to prevent further abuses. Whether those steps were merely window dressing or whether they were more meaningful, I don’t know. But if they were more than window dressing, then to me, that’s taking ownership.

    Fast and Furious is probably something altogether different. Like the IRS thing, I’m pretty ignorant about the in’s and out’s. I forget whether it started in the Bush era, but it seems to me that Holder knew about it and continued it. I’m not sure what the proper resolution of it is (and I’m not even sure it was necessarily a bad idea although it turned out tragically…..I just don’t know enough). But if it was a bad idea, then Obama and Holder have more to answer for. Tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phone….is that even an embarrassing thing? (Maybe.)

    Is any of this resign-worthy? The IRS issue….maybe for whoever immediately supervises the Cincinnati people, but probably not the secretary of the treasury, and not Obama. FF, maybe for Holder (depending on the what if’s…), but not Obama. The healthcare dot gov fiasco, maybe Sebelius should resign. The bridge issue, not for Christie, unless he knew more than he lets on.

    I get that in Westminster systems, the minister in charge is responsible and must resign when something bad happens on his or her watch. And when it comes to the Governor’s/President’s advisors, maybe they should resign. But in some cases–perhaps Sebelius is an example depending on one’s assessment of her competence–the resignation of the minister in charge might potentially mean the loss of a competent official, and in the healthcare debacle, the fault appears to be more one of hubris than venality. (YMMV). When it comes to the resignation of a governor or president, it’s harder to follow in the Westminster tradition. There’s a procedure for successors, but at least in practices, a resignation of the head of state + head of government is a bigger deal and usually requires something more. Maybe in a better world more of them would resign, although I’m not entirely sure what a world with a President Gore, President Cheney, or President Biden, post resignation of their superiors, would look like.Report

    • Also, has the CEO of Target stepped down? If he has, has that improved matters? If he hasn’t, ought he?Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      I think part of the problem here is that Vik is arguing, as we all should, for accountability, but using an analogy to criminal prosecution, or more accurately defense, to do it. But accountability, especially political accountability, takes on all forms and degrees, while a criminal defense is seeking one out of essentially two outcomes: (any of a possible variety of results that constitute) not guilty, as vice a guilty verdict. So perhaps the better analogy is to sentencing. After all, to a degree, at the point at which at which a politician is making the defense from ignorance, essentially she’s arguing from a position of admission of some kind of shortcoming in administration, whether malfeasance or negligence of even just inadequacy. Politics seeks to enforce accountability for all of those, not merely for the governing equivalent of a felony, i.e. corruption or worse. Just failing to be an effective executive triggers the accountability function of politics as well. When a politician argues they were unaware of some failure of their administration, they’ve basically (as I say) admitted the fact of a shortcoming to the court, and are asking for some degree of leniency in sentencing. In political accountability, sentencing is just, ‘Well, what do they think of me now.’ And as I say, that comprehends every conceivable shading of public sentiment.

      So in that light, it’s not the case that ignorance, and then at a more minute level, ignorance of activity at this remove from the executive’s office or this far closer remove, either is or isn’t a defense against a bill of particulars against an executive. It’s all just the kind of mitigating contextual information that defense lawyer would present to a judge in the sentencing phase. And in some contexts, ignorance may be a more understandable condition and therefore compelling piece of exculpating context than in others – again, on a spectrum, not as a binary question. And if people sympathetic to the defendant see the mitigating contextual info being presented as more exculpatory than others, well, that’s just politics: after all, what we’re discussing is precisely political accountability – noting more and nothing less.

      That is, until we’re not, because what we’re discussing has switched over into actual criminal culpability due to an actual criminal investigation. At which point, in the case of political figures, things get much more complicated.Report