Saga of Incompetence

Monday, December 26, 2005

IN THE WAKE of the catastrophic performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina, it was hard not to heap opprobrium on the head of Michael D. Brown, the FEMA boss who sent joking e-mails to an aide in the middle of the storm ("Can I quit now? Can I go home?") as well as his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who seemed to know less about the plight of New Orleans than the television reporters asking him questions about it. But as Post reporters Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald showed in their two-part series last week ["Prelude to Disaster," Dec. 22-23], the failures of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security predate Hurricane Katrina by several years. Although both Mr. Chertoff and Mr. Brown made mistakes during the storm, far more fingers should have been pointed at the haphazard, irrational and unabashedly political process that led to the creation of DHS, as well as the inept leadership of the department's first boss, Tom Ridge.

Four years ago, there was a case to be made for a government department that would group together different elements of border security -- the Coast Guard, the immigration services and customs -- in a more streamlined way. But, as the Post series documents, that wasn't what happened. Instead, White House officials anxious to prove their boss was more gung-ho about preparedness than congressional Democrats threw a lot of agencies together without much consideration of whether they belonged together, even at one point including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which carries out nuclear weapons research. Other agencies and tasks that should belong to homeland security, such as managing the nation's emergency vaccine stockpile, were left out. The result was bureaucratic redundancy and a mystifying command structure. One example: Even today, it still is unclear who in the government -- the White House, DHS or the Department of Health and Human Services -- is really in charge of defense against bioterrorism.

Mr. Ridge told the Post reporters of his many frustrations with DHS, but he bears blame for the catastrophe, too. The former Pennsylvania governor ran his department much as someone might run a governor's office. He worked hard on logos and public relations. His aides issued upbeat news releases. DHS put enormous and probably unnecessary resources into airline security while slighting other threats. Months into the job, he could not, in a conversation with Post editors, list his security priorities. Although Los Angeles had by 2004 come up with a method of measuring infrastructure risks, DHS still has not.

By far the most disturbing aspect of the DHS saga is how familiar it sounds: After all, the administration's attempts to reform the intelligence services have been no less political, and apparently no less clumsy. It stumbled in Iraq for two years. Will incompetence be remembered as the salient characteristic of the Bush presidency?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company