Most folks are probably familiar with the “Fast and Furious” gun running sting operation. The idea was that guns would be allowed to fall into criminal hands but they would have tracking devices to allow law enforcement to track them. While this sort of idea would work in the movies, it failed miserably in reality. Unless, of course, success is marked by providing criminals with guns.
Given that the plan was remarkably stupid and had seriously bad consequences, it seems reasonable that those involved should be punished appropriately. One question that is currently being addressed is how far the chain of responsibility goes.
Republicans are, not surprisingly, gunning for Attorney General Eric Holder and others in the Justice Department. They are, of course, right to push this issue and determine the extent to which the upper officials were aware of the plan and hence accountable for said plan.
If it is established that the officials in question were aware of the details of the plan (and had reason to believe it would turn out badly) then they should be held responsible for the operation to the degree that they were aware and to the degree they had the authority to control the operation.
It might be tempting to simply hold that officials are fully responsible for every action conducted by those beneath them in the chain of command. Of course, this would be absurd. After all this would make the President of the United States fully accountable for the actions of all military personnel, all the way down to the buck privates. It would also make corporate CEOs accountable for every employee (at least in terms of what they do on the job). On this view, if a private leaked secrets, then the President would be responsible. Or, if an employee of BP overcharged you for a hot dog at the store, then the CEO of BP would be accountable.
It is far more reasonable to assign responsibility based on the extent of the official’s knowledge (and also what s/he should know) and authority in the matter. In the case of Holder, while he is the Attorney General it does not follow that he can be aware of all operations and their details. The same can hold true of some of the officials under him. However, it obviously is not true of all of them and what needs to be sorted out is where the accountability for this incident legitimately ends (at least in terms of who should be punished).