Wednesday, September 14, 2005

While We're Handing Out Pink Slips....

Don't get me wrong, the sacking of Bush's latest "Masterpiece," Michael "Heck of a job" Brown, was a net positive for FEMA and for the country at large, but there is very solid evidence emerging that Brown is being made out to play the fall guy for more than he deserves. If we are looking for buck stopping stations, Michael Chertoff should be expecting an inbound train any minute now. I turn your attention to a Knight-Ridder article based on internal White House memos reviewed by the news organization (via Left Coaster) [As an aside: can we get Knight-Ridder some form of commendation for being one of the only serious news organizations still around?]:

The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show.

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.

Chertoff - not Brown - was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government's blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.

But according 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. On the day that Chertoff wrote the memo, Bush was in San Diego presiding over a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. [emphasis added]
Hmmmm, the plot it thickens. From the memo, we see the Right-wing spin machine's "blame the locals" canard exposed. I repeat: "Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials." But...what about Nagin and Blanco? And the bad habits of poor people? Surely the White House has a perfectly reasonable explanation.

White House and homeland security officials wouldn't explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn't immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.

Chertoff's hesitation and Bush's creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster - caused by terrorists or Mother Nature - is too big for local officials to handle.

A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff's memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff "does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with - nor does anyone who waits that long," said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989.

"Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there's a potential for losing lives," Becton told Knight Ridder. "I have no idea how many lives we're talking about. ... I don't understand why, except that they were inefficient."

Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo came on the heels of a memo from Brown, written several hours after Katrina made landfall, showing that the FEMA director was waiting for Chertoff's permission to get help from others within the massive department. In that memo, first obtained by the Associated Press last week, Brown requested Chertoff's "assistance to make available DHS employees willing to deploy as soon as possible." It asked for another 1,000 homeland security workers within two days and 2,000 within a week. [emph. added]
Four years after 9/11, this is what we came up with at the DHS? Steve Soto at Left Coaster has some pertinent insights:

It is interesting that hours before Knight Ridder goes with a story that places the blame not on local officials but the Bush Administration, Bush sorta fessed up for the federal government's failings, almost as if the White House knew this was coming. It is also interesting that the day after former FEMA chief Michael Brown fell on his sword, the memo showing that Chertoff for some reason delayed and failed to act timely makes its way into Knight Ridder's hands. Obviously Brown has some friends who are going to set the record straight.
The true test now will be whether Bush's fleeting moment of "responsibility" lasts long enough to actually hold Chertoff accountable for his galling failure. Chertoff deserves to go. If not, then Bush's show of contrition will amount to little more than political kabuki theater designed to control the damage. I'm not holding my breath.

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