Sunday, October 09, 2005

Chertoff, Bush escape the wrath of Katrina

In a little noticed Knight-Ridder article of almost a month ago (9/13/05), the Knight Ridder newspaper group details how the chain of responsibility for the failures of FEMA and the federal government leads not to the much-vilified Michael Brown, but to the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.

Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the "principal federal official" in charge of the storm.

[A]ccording to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.


The failures weren't FEMA's, the article suggests. It was higher up the federal chain of command.

Knocke said members of almost every federal agency had already been meeting as part of the department's Interagency Incident Management Group, which convened for the first time on the Friday before the hurricane struck. So it would be a mistake, he said, to interpret the memo as meaning that Tuesday, Aug. 30 was the first time that members of the federal government coordinated.

The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."


The Knight-Ridder reporters Shannon McCaffrey and Alison Young, who contributed to the above piece, also shared a byline on a story detailing how Chertoff, on the day after the storm as New Orleans filled with water, boarded a plane for a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu in Atlanta.

In that story, published four days after the first piece critical of Chertoff, the Homeland Security Director's mouthpieces busily try to shift blame to Brown to reporters who have already exposed that as incorrect in their prior story.

Moreover, the article indicates that at the staff level, FEMA was working feverishly to prepare for the storm, and to respond in its aftermath.

[Security spokesman Russ Knocke] said members of almost every federal agency had already been meeting [before landfall] as part of the department's Interagency Incident Management Group, which convened for the first time on the Friday before the hurricane struck. So it would be a mistake, he said, to interpret the [8/30 Chertoff memo declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance"] as meaning that Tuesday, Aug. 30 was the first time that members of the federal government coordinated.

The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."


Searches on news.google.com of Chertoff and the byline names shows these article got little distribution. The first did run in Editor and Publisher, so it's not as if the newspaper editors of America were unaware of this dimension of the story.

Instead, we were served the soap opera of the arguably incompetent Mr. Brown versus a congressional committee.

While Brown's competence to lead FEMA based on his experience managing race horses is clearly in question, it is also clear that he was merely the fall guy, meant to stop the probes from reaching higher into the government.

The Knight Ridder Washington Bureau is to be commended for their efforts to explore what happened, and who was responsible for the federal failures. It now remains to some other residents of Washington, those on Capitol Hill, to demand a full accounting from those all the way up to the top.

No doubt many will argue we witnesses a failure of a ponderous federal bureaucracy. Instead, what we witnesses, was the failure of a White House for which everything--war on terror, Katrina, you name it--is a political campaign event, to be handled as best benefits the candidate and the party.

Our highest leadership values cronyism above all else, elevating the incompetent but loyal to preside over the division of the spoils. The spoils, as reported here and elsewhere, are the no-bid contracts that will consume much of initial federal aid. (I would note that FEMA, under increasing scrutiny and pressure) is now going to bid those contracts).

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