The Ghost of Brownie

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

SINCE ITS disgraceful performance during Hurricane Katrina and the shake-up that followed, the folks at the Federal Emergency Management Agency have adopted a mantra: We are a new FEMA. But the old, bumbling agency capable of breathtaking lapses in judgment reemerged last week during a "press conference" to update the "media" on FEMA's response to the wildfires in Southern California.

Turns out the people whom FEMA deputy administrator Harvey E. Johnson Jr. called on for softball questions about the agency's handling of the first major disaster since Katrina were -- as Post writer Al Kamen first reported -- FEMA employees. The real reporters, who couldn't get to the news conference because it had been called 15 minutes before it started, telephoned in but were allowed only to listen. No questions. This is outlandish on so many levels, we don't know where to begin.

FEMA personnel who participated in this hoax undermined the agency's still-tattered credibility smack in the middle of an emergency. The excuse that staffers were simply asking questions they had been fielding from reporters all day is as lame as it is unacceptable.

Despite apologies from two men who should have known better -- Mr. Johnson and John P. "Pat" Philbin, who until last week was FEMA's director of external affairs -- condemnation from the administration was quick. President Bush's press secretary Dana Perino said, "It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House." Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part, bluntly described the stunt as "totally unacceptable." Reprimands are "very probable," he added. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff sent Mr. Knocke to FEMA on temporary assignment yesterday to manage its external affairs operation. Good. May he bring order and discipline with him.

Mr. Philbin, who left FEMA on Thursday, said, "I hope readers understand we're working very hard to establish credibility and integrity, and I would hope this does not undermine it." Hope springs eternal.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company