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Opinion: Who's to blame in Washington?

In the sports world, people get fired when they screw up. Why doesn't it work the same way in our nation's capital?

An intern for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, sits with stacks of paperwork in anticipation of a committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 29, 2009. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

PITTSBURGH — First you are alarmed at how easy it was for a handful of uninvited guests to sneak into the White House and shake the president’s hand. Then you contemplate finding yourself on an airliner next to a terrorist like the one who breezed through security for Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Soon you realize that in almost every recent security breech, there’s been a faulty regulatory component — an episode where some rule was bent, never been put in place or poorly policed.

At the heart of the fresh controversy about American security are regulators — the bureaucrats and top appointed politicos running the vast federal regulatory system — who bowed to the human impulse of figuring “it’s someone else’s job.” Or assumed that someone else “took care of it.” Or, as President Barack Obama put it in the accusatory phrase du jour, didn’t connect the dots.

On clear display this winter: Washington’s capacity for obscuring blame in the vast morass of the regulatory edifice.

Indeed, what’s missing in the capital this winter is folks standing up, identifying themselves, and taking the blame. The buck does stop with Obama, who revived an old Harry Truman line during a week of post-mortems on the underwear bomber.

But if the people under the president suffer no consequences there isn’t much point in the president undertaking an overhaul of the security apparatus in the U.S., because no one is in jeopardy of losing his job and because the nameless, faceless bureaucrats behind the winter breeches are destined to remain nameless and faceless.

In other countries, a high-ranking official like Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of homeland security, would be fired — if she didn’t quit first — if only to send the political signal that failures of security and intelligence won’t be tolerated.

After the Christmas incident, the global aviation industry called out Napolitano, arguing that governments must use risk-assessment techniques and better technology to close security gaps and focus attention on passengers, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and bags that are high-risk.

When there are regulatory failures in places such as Japan, it’s likely those responsible would be identified and then issue a public apology with a deep bow. In China, as when tainted toy exports to the U.S. were discovered, the head of the company making toys for Mattel hanged himself in a warehouse.