Brown's Turf Wars Sapped FEMA's Strength
Friday, December 23, 2005
On Sept. 15, 2003, one of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's deputies lobbed a bureaucratic hand grenade across his desk. In a seven-page memo, the new department's undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response told Ridge that his organizational plan would cripple America's ability to respond to disasters.
The memo, like so many that flew around Washington during the largest government reshuffling in decades, involved turf: Ridge had decided to move some of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's preparedness functions to an office less than one-fifteenth its size. The writer warned that the shift would make a mockery of FEMA's new motto, "A Nation Prepared," and would "fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions," "shatter agency morale," and "break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders."
The inevitable result, he wrote, would be "an ineffective and uncoordinated response" to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
The author was Michael D. Brown, who was FEMA's director as well as a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary. Two years later, Brown would lose both titles after Hurricane Katrina, when his prophecies of doom came true.
Katrina exposed FEMA as a dysfunctional organization, paralyzed in a crisis four years after the supposedly galvanizing attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it turned Brown -- a former executive of the International Arabian Horse Association who had no emergency management experience before joining the Bush administration -- into a symbol of government ineptitude. But Brown's well-chronicled gaffes in Louisiana had less impact on FEMA than his little-known power struggles in Washington. Brown lost almost all of them -- partly because he was widely despised at DHS for his relentless infighting -- and FEMA paid a price in money, manpower, missions and prestige.
In his first extensive interview about FEMA's chaotic integration into DHS, Brown acknowledged that the agency deteriorated on his watch. But he blamed its decline on the mammoth reorganization that forced FEMA into the new department, and on his constant setbacks once inside.
"The slogan was 'Do No Harm,' but we were doing harm," Brown said. "People became distracted from the mission, because we spent so much time and energy fighting for resources and working on reorganization. It just disintegrated our capacity."
Initially, Brown's bosses at DHS and the department's architects in the White House shared the same goal of a beefed-up FEMA; their catchphrase was "FEMA on steroids." But that is no longer the vision or the reality. And FEMA's deterioration is not only the most visible failure of DHS: It is also emblematic of the turf battles that have plagued the rest of the department.
This account -- drawing on internal documents and e-mails as well as interviews with Brown, FEMA officials and many of the DHS leaders who clashed with him, including Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff and his predecessor, Ridge -- reveals a more complex Brown than the now-familiar caricature of cronyism and incompetence. Long before his e-mails portrayed a befuddled bureaucrat who fretted about restaurant reservations and his Nordstrom wardrobe while New Orleans drowned, he was known at DHS as a fierce turf warrior whose griping about FEMA's role alienated superiors and marginalized his agency.
"The biggest danger in the department was tribalism," said Bruce M. Lawlor, Ridge's initial chief of staff, "and FEMA was the number one tribe."
In many ways, Brown is a cautionary tale of what can happen to Washington officials who make mistakes in the public eye after making enemies behind the scenes. Brown spent two years trying to use his contacts with White House officials to undercut DHS, but the White House rarely backed him, and DHS leaders responded by shifting FEMA's responsibilities and resources to more cooperative agencies.
Ridge stripped FEMA's power over billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants as well as the creation of a national disaster response plan. Most of the agency's top staff quit. And after he arrived at DHS in February, Chertoff decided to take away the rest of FEMA's preparedness duties.