That FEMA Thing? It Was a Setup. Any More Questions?

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

FEMA's internal investigation into its infamous phony news conference is over, but the topic is sure to come up when acting Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson goes to the Senate for his confirmation hearing. (His name mysteriously failed to make the Senate hearing list last week, however.) Administrator R. David Paulison has strongly defended Johnson, saying he was "set up" by horrific staff work.

Johnson himself has said he could not recall whether he was told that staffers would ask him questions. But two career employees signed statements saying that press secretary Aaron Walker said he told Johnson or was going to tell Johnson beforehand. And during the news conference, Johnson called on questioners by name.

Asked about this by our colleague Spencer Hsu, Paulison praised Johnson's work at FEMA and said former agency external affairs chief John P. Philbin "literally grabbed Harvey and took him into the press room." Paulison added: "There was no time for Harvey to know anything. . . . It was not intentional, but he was set up and he walked in there and he didn't know everyone in the room."

It might be instructive to look at things from Johnson's perspective. He's in a very small briefing room, looking out at perhaps a dozen people, all from FEMA. He sees several whom he knows by first name because they work directly for him. Most are conveniently sitting in the front row as they lob one softball after another so he can praise FEMA's work.

How could he know anything was amiss?

There were lots of clues. Real reporters -- at least ink-stained ones -- don't wear such nice suits. Real reporters rudely interrupt one another. Real reporters ask snarky questions. Real reporters take notes.

Well, maybe he was distracted.

Oh, Well. Duty Calls.

Still looking for a fine trip during the upcoming Thanksgiving break? Already been to Brazil? No problem. Freshman Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), the 25th-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has a week-long trip to Greece and Cyprus on tap the week after Thanksgiving.

Of course you'll be going on a military jet -- effectively your own private plane and staff -- to Athens, staying at the lovely Hotel Grande Bretagne, which styles itself as "surely the most luxurious establishment in Greece," with a terrific rooftop restaurant and view of the city.

The "notional itinerary" we received last week included a tour of the Acropolis, but no visits to the islands, particularly Santorini, one of the most beautiful places in the world, which sits in the crystal-blue waters of the Aegean Sea and a place any good public-policy maker would have to see in order to understand the region.

There is no visit to the new museum built to house the Elgin Marbles that the Brits stole those many years ago and have yet to return. There's not even a stop to chat with the Oracle of Delphi.

Cyprus features touring of some historic sites and a trip to the ghost town of Famagusta, abandoned since the 1974 Turkish invasion and one of the more bizarre places on Earth.

But, as with the draft schedule for Greece, the itinerary tilts wildly toward meetings, one after another -- though the Turkish Cypriots oddly are shut out. Every major and minor minister in the region is on the list.

Yet there's not even a trip to lovely Kyrenia on Cyprus's north coast. Fortunately, we have been told that the schedule is changing constantly, and it's assumed that Sires, a rookie still feeling his way in the world of congressional travel, will be guided by veterans and restore the appropriate balance.

It should also be noted that temperatures this time of year in Greece are at best in the low 60s, and it's only marginally warmer in Cyprus.

All this may explain why only five members have signed on to join Sires, including freshman Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), who's of Greek heritage, a couple of other Democrats and two Republicans. We're told people are signing up and others are dropping off every day.

But with the appropriate fixes in the schedule, this one would be worth taking.

If not, stay tuned for a staff Christmas trip to Switzerland.

Won't You Help a Hero?

Loop Fan Alert! Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, once briefly nominated to be head of the Department of Homeland Security, needs money to pay his legal expenses as he tries to fend off federal conspiracy and corruption charges.

His friends have set up a Web site,, looking for donations to help him beat the rap. They note that any donation will be "treated as a gift to Mr. Kerik to be used at his discretion."

There are tributes to him from prominent leaders here and around the world. Former New York mayor and business partner Rudolph Giuliani calls him "an excellent Police Commissioner and Courageous Leader on 9/11" and "a hero to New York City and our country." President Bush calls him "one of the most accomplished and effective leaders of law enforcement in America," and former British prime minister Tony Blair says Kerik was "an inspiration to all of us." And Jordan's King Abdullah II says "America is lucky to have a patriot such as yourself."

Out-of-Fashion Show

Long past time to update the gallery. It's been more than a year since a colleague strolled through the Bush Diplomatic Hall of Glory at the State Department -- a series of large photographs the administration had installed to hail our leader's foreign policy triumphs. Our source noticed one with former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, whom Bush had praised as a "great Iraqi patriot" and "a strong partner for peace and freedom."

The hapless Jafari was kicked out in 2006. Yet there's no picture of Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, who has been in power since then.

There's a picture of Bush greeting his not-poodle Blair, but no photos of Bush with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, even though Brown's been in office since the summer and has been to the White House.

There's a White House hug with Georgia's president, that great democracy lover Mikhail "Misha" Saakashvili, who's just declared martial law. There's also a shot of Bush addressing a happy crowd in Tbilisi's "Freedom Square." (That's how you know they have freedom there.) At least there's no picture of Bush and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf.

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