Saturday, May 9, 2009

The right response

Louis Caldera is now out of a job.  He was the politically-appointed chief ultimately responsible for the horrifying low-altitude flyover photo op two weeks ago.   A plane used sometimes as Air Force One was given a mission to buzz lower Manhattan so a picture could be taken of the plane over the Statue of Liberty.
Within two weeks, the White House has released this report (.pdf) explaining how it went wrong at the top level.  It presents a clear story, easily understandable, of the compounding of mistakes; we are now certain that Mr. Caldera had the sole responsibility for the mistake; and he made the correct decision and resigned his post.

The memo is clear that its scope is limited to White House decision points; it says that the Department of Defense is conducting its own review; I think we should also see one from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The biggest hole in the story presented by the White House memo is the question of origin:
Initial planning for the New York City flyover appears to have begun in March 2009 or earlier.  On Friday, April 3, 2009, representatives of the PAG, the FAA, and several local authorities held a teleconference to discuss "operational issues and public affairs / outreach issues." According to a written summary of the call, the participants discussed the details of the proposed flyover including the date, time, and location of the operation; the altitude of the plane (1,000 feet), and the preferred flight path. The participants recognized "the sensitivity of the aircraft involved," and concluded that "public affairs and outreach efforts must be carefully coordinated and timed." Coordination with "the general public" was planned to commence two days before the flight. The written summary of the call further specified that "[n]o reference should be made to the Presidential aircraft in any public outreach." However, it suggested that public outreach could reference "DOD aircraft." 
Where did the idea come from originally?  Shouldn't that idea person also lose his or her job, or at least be moved sideways out of that position?

It's pretty clear from the memo that from an operational standpoint, this flyover was nothing more than an intricate training flight; the kind of routine thing that it has not been common practice to discuss with the White House.  Colonel Scott Turner, commander of the group responsible for Air Force One, is obviously a very competent officer who was not insensitive to possible public reaction.  He threw up as many flags as he could, and was basically assured that his concerns had been addressed by the White House.  He executed his task extremely well.  I'm extremely glad that no blame is being attached anywhere except squarely where it should be.

It's a small event, and Mr. Caldera is obviously of very little political importance to anyone, but as a microcosm, this is the kind of response we should demand from our government.  As Fester says, "Minimal levels of accountability should prevent some stupidity" and accountability is what is desperately missing from our current ruling class, from Wall Street bonuses to torture architects, enablers, actors and silent opposition to military contracting to lobbyist influence.  In a bi-partisan way, from the bottom to the top, we need transparency and accountability, and it's up to each of us ordinary citizens to demand it.

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