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FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be . . . FEMA

By Al Kamen
Friday, October 26, 2007

FEMA has truly learned the lessons of Katrina. Even its handling of the media has improved dramatically. For example, as the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator, had a 1 p.m. news briefing.

Reporters were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices.

They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a "listen only" line, the notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on Fox News (see the Fox News video of the news conference carried on the Think Progress Web site), MSNBC and other outlets.

Johnson stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he would take a few questions. The first questions were about the "commodities" being shipped to Southern California and how officials are dealing with people who refuse to evacuate. He responded eloquently.

He was apparently quite familiar with the reporters -- in one case, he appears to say "Mike" and points to a reporter -- and was asked an oddly in-house question about "what it means to have an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration" signed by the president. He once again explained smoothly.

FEMA press secretary Aaron Walker interrupted at one point to caution he'd allow just "two more questions." Later, he called for a "last question."

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" a reporter asked. Another asked about "lessons learned from Katrina."

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson said, hailing "a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team."

"And so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.

Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.

Asked about this, Widomski said: "We had been getting mobbed with phone calls from reporters, and this was thrown together at the last minute."

But the staff did not make up the questions, he said, and Johnson did not know what was going to be asked. "We pulled questions from those we had been getting from reporters earlier in the day." Despite the very short notice, "we were expecting the press to come," he said, but they didn't. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like the real thing.

"If the worst thing that happens to me in this disaster is that we had staff in the chairs to ask questions that reporters had been asking all day, Widomski said, "trust me, I'll be happy."

Heck of a job, Harvey.

He's Leaving, Not Quitting

David Denehy, a.k.a. "The $75 Million Man," who headed a controversial program to dispense that amount to promote democracy in Iran, is leaving his job today at the State Department to go private-sector as head of a small company.

In a recent e-mail, Denehy said that "my decision to leave the administration is due, in part, to my belief that I am better able to serve the goals of the President's Freedom Agenda from outside the government. While there have been many challenges to the work we have done together, the rewards have been equally great."

More than two dozen Iranian American and human rights groups said the Iran program, which began last year, was "counter-productive" and led to wider repression of activists who were accused of being foreign agents or traitors. Four Iranian Americans were jailed for "crimes against national security," the groups said in appealing to Congress to eliminate the program, and continuation of the program would only further endanger democracy efforts by giving the Iranian government "a pretext to harass its own population."

But Denehy, in an e-mail to us yesterday, said he's not leaving because of criticism of the effort. "I continue to enjoy the support of my leadership," he said, and "from Congress and more importantly from those within Iran who participate in our programs. . . . I don't back away from a fight."

All the Same?

April 8, 2004: Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the Sept. 11 commission that "terrorism is terrorism is terrorism -- in other words, you can't fight al-Qaeda and hug Hezbollah or hug Hamas."

"We don't make a distinction between different kinds of terrorism. And we're, therefore, united with the countries of the world to fight all kinds of terrorism. Terrorism is never an appropriate or justified response just because of political difficulty."

Wednesday: Army Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, a senior member of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news briefing: "There are over 45 different organizations on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and you can't look at all of them the same way.

"If you look at all of these as nails, then all of the solutions you have all of a sudden suddenly start to appear like a hammer, and a hammer's not always the right answer."

Hmmmm. . . .

Don't Forget Where You Came From

In June, Paul McNulty left the No. 2 job at the Justice Department -- and the hassle being called to Capitol Hill to answer questions about whether politics played a role in the firing of U.S. attorneys -- for a big-bucks partnership at Baker & McKenzie in Washington.

He told the audience at an American Bar Association conference in Washington yesterday that he's still getting the hang of his new job. Talking about criminal-fraud investigations of big companies, McNulty referred to himself as part of the government, then laughed and told the crowd: "I have to get the 'we' out of my vocabulary," our colleague Carrie Johnson reports.

Maybe he needs to remember who's signing his paycheck. At the conference, McNulty staunchly defended a DOJ policy that allows prosecutors to strong-arm companies to comply with the feds.

Resourcefulness at the FAA, Cont'd

The Federal Aviation Administration calls to say that the poker table and other furnishings bought for the Atlanta air traffic control center did not cost $3,500 by itself, as we had written Wednesday, but only $795. And it's a "de-briefing table for trainees," FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said, although you "could flip over the top for the checkerboard on the other side," which folks could use to relax during downtime.

Of course, they could play poker on it. And since the FAA can't get around to spending a few bucks to fix the chronically leaky roof at the center, the controllers could put their equipment under the table so it's not damaged when it rains. Beats using the umbrellas that they have to hold over the stuff now.

"It could be used for other purposes," Spitalieri conceded.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.

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