FEMA Simply Stumbled

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Regarding the Oct. 30 editorial "The Ghost of Brownie":

When wondering whether a government action is the result of conspiracy or mistake, the smart money bets on mistake. The furor over the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recent "phony" press briefing shows that many have become so reflexively cynical that they no longer even ask. They assume that conspiracies are afoot.

In this case, there was no conspiracy and no reason to hatch one. The California wildfire operations had gone reasonably well, especially FEMA's efforts. There was no bad news to hide and no hard questions to duck.

Here is what happened: There was pressure to inform the public quickly, and the staff, exhausted from round-the-clock duty, dropped the ball on announcing the news briefing. I was busy with meetings and unaware before the briefing that reporters had not been given adequate time to arrive and that the phone line for reporters was "listen only." The staff tried to salvage the event by asking the kinds of questions they had been fielding that morning.

Mistakes were made by a well-intentioned staff, and I made two. I did not ensure that the staff had made adequate preparations, and when I found out in the middle of the briefing, I did not intervene. Because I was in charge, I take responsibility for letting this hastily planned briefing go forward.

However, neither I nor anyone on the staff is guilty of any attempt to deceive.

JOHN P. PHILBIN

Herndon

The writer was director of external affairs for FEMA until last month.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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