By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's No. 2 official apologized yesterday for leading a staged news conference Tuesday in which FEMA employees posed as reporters while real reporters listened on a telephone conference line and were barred from asking questions.
"We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent," Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr., FEMA's deputy administrator, said in a four-paragraph statement.
"We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment," Johnson said, a view repeated yesterday by press officers at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, who criticized the event.
FEMA announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters about 15 minutes before it was to begin Tuesday afternoon, making it unlikely that reporters could attend. Instead, FEMA set up a telephone conference line so reporters could listen.
In the briefing, parts of which were televised live by cable news channels, Johnson stood behind a lectern, called on questioners who did not disclose that they were FEMA employees, and gave replies emphasizing that his agency's response to this week's California wildfires was far better than its response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
"It was absolutely a bad decision. I regret it happened. Certainly . . . I should have stopped it," said John P. "Pat" Philbin, FEMA's director of external affairs. "I hope readers understand we're working very hard to establish credibility and integrity, and I would hope this does not undermine it."
White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday that "it is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House. We certainly don't condone it. We didn't know about it beforehand. . . . They, I'm sure, will not do it again."
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the staged briefing "totally unacceptable," adding, "While it is an isolated incident, that does not make it any more tolerable." He said reprimands are "very probable." FEMA is part of DHS.
"Trying to manipulate the press and the public will only tarnish their [FEMA's] current success," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said.
Philbin's last scheduled day at FEMA was Thursday. He has been named as the new head of public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ODNI spokeswoman Vanee Vines said.