By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's director of external communications was denied a post as senior spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell yesterday, becoming the highest-ranking casualty of a fake news conference staged by FEMA last week to publicize its response to California's devastating wildfires.
The flap is not the first time FEMA or its parent Department of Homeland Security has been on the wrong end of a public relations move that backfired. Rather, it fits a pattern in which domestic security officials have mismanaged the public presentation of their efforts, whether those efforts are going well or poorly.
Public relations is an obsession of senior department leaders, who say that public safety and counterterrorism efforts depend on their credibility. But DHS has repeatedly stumbled, most devastatingly when its leaders' reassuring words clashed with chaotic television images of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
In the past year, congressional investigators have accused FEMA officials of suppressing warnings about health problems from high levels of formaldehyde gas in as many as 120,000 trailers provided to Katrina victims. A federal judge accused them of creating "Kafkaesque" bureaucratic hurdles for more than 100,000 evacuees who received disaster aid. Lawmakers have expressed frustration over shifting FEMA statements about the $70 million in food aid stockpiled last year in the Gulf Coast that was lost because of spoilage.
FEMA has also stumbled in smaller ways. It was forced to retract counts of the number of Katrina evacuees in hotel rooms. A federal judge directed it to lift a gag rule on legal-aid lawyers seeking to help storm victims at federal disaster relief centers. Another judge accused FEMA of hiding behind "double-talk, obscure regulations, outdated computer programs, and politically loaded platitudes" in curbing disaster aid.
"It's systemic," said Robert W. Doggett, staff attorney at the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid office, who has fought FEMA in court over Katrina aid policies. "It's just a symptom of the underlying problem, which is FEMA thinking, 'We're going to do whatever it is we want to do, and we'll tell the public what they need to know, whether they be a victim, another government agency or Congress, and you're lucky to get it.' "
The agency's PR approach has carried a recurrent cost. Since Friday, the fake news conference has been criticized by the White House, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and R. David Paulison, FEMA's administrator. Paulison called reporters yesterday and apologized again "for the inexcusable actions and remarkably bad judgment exhibited" last week.
McConnell's office issued a statement saying that FEMA's director of external communications at the time, John "Pat" Philbin, is no longer scheduled to serve as the DNI's director of public affairs. DNI spokesman Vanee Vines said Philbin will not serve in any other capacity.
FEMA has said it staged the event at its Southwest Washington headquarters when no reporters showed up after being notified 15 minutes before it began. Those invited could listen on the phone but could not ask questions. They were not told that those asking questions were FEMA employees.
Paulison pledged yesterday that FEMA will give at least one hour's notice of news conferences, will not prevent reporters listening in on a telephone conference line from asking questions and will allow only reporters to do the questioning. He also said Russ Knocke, the press secretary at the DHS, will serve as acting head of FEMA's public affairs.
Paulison said that he will impose other disciplinary actions but did not say what they will be. "I need to see who made the decision to do this. I'm not sure it was Pat," he said.
"It's stunning to me that Director Paulison is using his time apologizing to reporters personally," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group that worked on housing Katrina evacuees. "There are a lot of people whose lives have been turned upside down by FEMA's improvisations that should be getting calls from FEMA apologizing to them."
Scott Needle, a Bay St. Louis, Miss., pediatrician who raised early alarms about formaldehyde in trailers, said: "There seems to be a disconnect in its leadership that's kind of lost sight of its mission. . . . It seems that they've been caught up in the bureaucracy and just protecting their own agency."