23 January 2001

Dereliction of duty, from the bridge of the USS Cole to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, left 17 American sailors dead, a billion-dollar ship mangled and our nation humiliated by a two-bit gang of terrorists.

And now, three months and millions of dollars and investigative hours later, no one involved in the disaster is to be held responsible!

When Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his damage-control squad released the results of their Pentagon investigation last week, it was no wonder of wonders when the guilty walked free. No court-martials, brig time or firing squads. Holding folks accountable for misdeeds in Washington has flat gone out of style.

Far more thought went into the timing of the press conference than went into the writing of the flawed Rules of Engagement that the Cole followed when it sailed into the Port of Aden in Yemen. Cohen and spinners knew the press and public preferred tuning into inauguration whoop-de-do rather than worrying about accountability for widespread negligence. Late Friday afternoon provided the perfect opportunity to slip another Pentagon whitewash past a distracted media and public.

Cohen, who released his report as he was putting on his hat and joining the ranks of ex-Clinton officials at the high-paying speaker and lobbyist bureaus, said everyone from the ship's skipper to himself was responsible. In other words, no one was responsible.

That's like saying all Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, so no one should have visited the hangman at Nuremberg.

When I was growing up back in the "brown shoe" Army, you had to memorize and live by the Principles of Leadership to make corporal. One "do as I say not as I do" removed your stripes and returned you to the KP roster faster than the Top Kick could shout, "Report to the mess, now!"

SEEK RESPONSIBILITY AND TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS is one of those Principles of Leadership still on the books, especially if you're enlisted. Let a grunt goof today and it's still the hammer or the slammer, while with the brass it's normally a quiet gold-watch retirement ceremony.

Take the case of Army Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson of Aberdeen Proving Ground shame. His flings with female recruits at the Maryland post cost him 25 years in prison. But that standard didn't apply to the brass.

When Army Maj. Gen. David Hale did the same thing -- four times, in fact -- he only got slapped on the wrist, retired as a general and married one of the young wives he had seduced.

Or take the skipper of the Cole, Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold. A report by the Persian Gulf naval commander said he should be disciplined for violating 31 of 62 security requirements. But not only did Lippold -- a well-connected former aide to the secretary of the Navy -- walk, he's being defended by the Navy's head guy. The same admiral who last October led his staff in an almost-successful attempt to muddy the facts of what really went down in Aden.

Such hush-ups aren't new inside the beltway, but they've become high art since Clinton took charge in 1993. Remember Somalia that year? Eighteen soldiers dead and 100 wounded. Everyone from Clinton to his top brass to two generals on the ground in Mogadishu were guilty of getting our soldiers slaughtered, but in the end everyone got away clean.

Now only the loved ones of these brave men killed and wounded in Mogadishu still care about bringing down those responsible for the military mess-up, just as must be the case with the near and dear of the sailors who died or were ripped apart by shrapnel on the Cole.

President George W. Bush promised Saturday in his inaugural speech that changes would be made and that Washington would return to a high moral standard. Amen. Washington's civilian leadership and our military's top command must get back to basic principles, stop playing us citizens for suckers and start punishing sinners at the top as well as at the bottom.

Admiral H.G. Rickover hit the bull's-eye dead center when he said, "Unless you can point your finger at the man responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible."

Sen. John Warner's Armed Services Committee cannot, and I suspect will not, let this grave injustice pass. The Cole cover-up must not be allowed to stand.