Who's accountable?

The actions of two Washington bureaucrats offer a sharp contrast in accountability.

Veterans Administration Secretary Jim Nicholson abruptly resigned Tuesday, but only after months of trying to deflect criticism for the shoddy health care for veterans injured in the Iraq war. Nicholson said he plans to return to the private sector and made no mention of the controversy surrounding his agency in his farewell statement.

"We have accomplished so much, and the VA is always striving to improve our services for veterans," Nicholson said in his resignation statement.

Many would disagree, including hundreds of veterans under the care of the VA. During Nicholson's two-year tenure, the VA suffered an unexpected $1.3 billion shortfall in 2005 that threatened the quality of care for patients.

Last summer, the personal data of 26.5 million veterans was stolen from computer banks, one of the largest government security breaches in history. The VA also passed out $3.8 million in bonuses to the senior officials responsible who had bungled the budget.

While the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington is a Pentagon facility, the recent scandal regarding poor treatment and shoddy facilities there spread to the VA as well. Reports surfaced about similarly inadequate treatment for vets at some of the 1,400 VA hospitals and clinics that serve 5.8 million veterans.

And, on top of those worries, the VA also has a severe backlog of disability payments to injured veterans, with delays of more than four months.

We are left to wonder whether Nicholson, like so many Bush appointees, simply was not up to the job of running a large government agency. Although Nicholson was a Vietnam veteran, his primary distinction was that he was a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Veterans organizations welcomed his departure, but Nicholson offered no mea culpas when he announced that he would leave.

Maura Harty is not leaving her job as assistant secretary of state. But Harty is accepting the blame for the delay in issuing passports that has interfered with the travel plans for millions of Americans.

The government, as a security measure, started requiring Americans flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean to show their passports. But although the government had more than six years to prepare, the flood of passport requests caught the State Department by surprise.

Department officials miscalculated the number of passport requests by more than 1.5 million and hired too few employees to process the requests. The massive backlog ruined vacations, destroyed wedding and honeymoon plans and disrupted business meetings and education plans. People lost workdays waiting in lines or thousands of nonrefundable travel deposits.

But Harty, who is in charge of passports, at least is not passing the buck: "Over the past several months, many travelers who applied for a passport did not receive their document in time for their planned travel. I deeply regret that," she said. "I accept complete responsibility for this."

Which of the two high-level officials, Nicholson or Harty, are you more inclined to forgive?