Prelude to Disaster : The Making of DHS
Friday, December 23, 2005; 11:00 AM
Washington Post staff writers Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald were online Friday, Dec. 23, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their series on the Department of Homeland Security.
The transcript follows.
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for reading, everyone. Susan's just on her way in. There are a lot of great questions, so we'll get started.
Washington, D.C.: I am a career FEMA manager and was overjoyed to read your story this morning because, finally, the media got the story right. I have been in meetings with Mike Brown since 2001, and can personally attest to his frustration with the neutering of FEMA and the raiding of our very limited funding by the DHS bureaucracy. Whatever his faults, Mike Brown was in love with FEMA's mission. He privately called himself a "bleeding heart conservative". If there's one criticism of him I can make, it's that he was loyal to a fault to President Bush who knew what was happening and, by not stopping it, supported the looting of FEMA. Mike is to be commended for his candor - he has always been open and candid - but, to this day, he won't say the obvious about the President's responsibility in turning FEMA into a national disaster.
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your kind words. Mike Brown has become a cartoon--partly because of those dopey e-mails where he bragged about being a "fashion god" and fretted about his restaurant reservations while New Orleans drowned, partly because of President Bush's "heckuva job" line, and partly because of FEMA's obvious problems during Katrina. We tried to tell the untold Mike Brown story--his turf wars inside DHS. We don't pass judgment on whether he should have won the wars or not; we just point out that he lost almost all of them, partly because he was perceived by his bosses as a selfish infighter who didn't share their vision of an integrated department. So there was a vicious cycle: the more he fought, the more he lost, and the more FEMA got hosed, and the more Brown fought. As for the White House, Brown acknowledges that having friends there didn't help him much.
Washington, D.C.: Just a comment: as one who works with a large branch of DHS, your articles understate the actual amount of turf wars that go on - even on the most petty of subjects, every little group defends its turf. It is like fighting for a place on the stern of the Titanic before it slips beneath the waves.
Michael Grunwald: This is a funny comment. We don't mean to be naive about turf warfare; we know it's part of Washington culture, and all corporate culture for that matter. (Except for The Washington Post, of course. We've got a perfectly functioning bureaucracy here on 15th street.) But we tried to show how these battles have affected the department set up to defend America. For one thing, some DHS leaders told us they spent more time worrying about these internal battles than they spent worrying about the next attack. And the story of Mike Brown's wars is a pretty stark case study in how infighting can translate into policy.
Maryland: A very interesting article, to say the least. In the end, bureaucratic inertia and turf protection on the part of the executive agencies, aided and abetted by their Congressional patrons, always win out over national exigencies. Two points for your consideration: I am with the Coast Guard, and our performance during Hurricane Katrina was in no small measure the result of having been transferred intact from Transportation to DHS. Secondly, during the Katrina relief efforts, FEMA begged for detailees from other Federal agencies to assist in dealing with its greatly increased workload. The Coast Guard, which itself was busy enough, answered FEMA's call with people. And guess what? The reports back from CG detailees were that they had been sent there to allow the FEMA employees the chance to take scheduled vacations and leave work by 4 p.m. every afternoon!!
Michael Grunwald: This is an interesting point. The Coast Guard has some very powerful friends in Congress, and those friends inserted language into the Homeland Security Act that virtually prohibited DHS leaders from breathing on the Coast Guard. It's Section 887 or something; Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral who took over for Mike Brown after Katrina, joked that the leadership over there has Section 887 (or whatever it is) tattooed on their arms. The serious point is that FEMA and most other agencies didn't have that kind of insulation, and they haven't all fared as well.
Manassas, Va.: Is this series a part of a book that you are going to publish? If so, The Post must have said so. See how skeptical we have become due to Woodward's relationship with the paper?
Michael Grunwald: No, we have no plans to do a book about this; we're going to be too busy flacking books we've already written. But seriously--not that this is any of my business--I'm mystified by your skepticism about Woodward. Is there any newspaper in the country that wouldn't kill kill kill to have the relationship the Post has with Woodward? If it wasn't for Woodward, would the world know anything about what goes on at the upper levels of this administration?
Sorry, I guess that was a bit off the topic.
Arlington, Va.: What do you see in the near-term future for FEMA and DHS? Are any major structural or high level working relationships likely to change during the remaining time of this administration?
Susan B. Glasser: This of course is a key question -- Secretary Chertoff just this week has promised a major restructuring of FEMA, without tipping his hand as to what or how. At the same time, Chertoff continues to support the idea of stripping the remaining preparedness functions from FEMA and putting them in a new preparedness directorate -- which was at the heart of Mike Brown's war with the department for the last year.
Newark, N.J.: Awesome reporting of this whole DHS mess. I'm a Senior Agent with ICE. Are you going to do an article about the biggest joke in DHS which is ICE? The G-5 and DHS leadership should be thrown in jail for this debacle!
Susan B. Glasser: Curious to know what the writer thinks is the heart of the debacle...? We're received many calls and emails from people inside the vast DHS bureaucracy, many with suggestions that we look further at their piece of the department.
Trenton, N.J.: From a former Crimed now in cyberspace:
Isn't it completely ironic that such a large bureaucracy such as DHS was created by a political party who says it wants smaller government? Or says it respects civil liberties?
Susan B. Glasser: That irony was not lost on the architects of the department in the White House, which preached the virtues of small government but in the end opted for this very massive-government solution. Budget hawk Mitch Daniels, at the time Bush's budget director, told us he was acutely aware of the danger that this would represent more throwing money at the problem post-9/11. Flip side is that many observers of the department believe it was never given proper resources to do the hard work of melding all the disparate 22 agencies together...
Alexandria, Va.: Your piece was an impressive work! To weave all those complex parts into a comprehensive, readable story must have taken a long time--but, not being a journalist, I have no idea how long it might take. I know there were at least four of you who worked on it....did it take four months of work? ...or three weeks of day and night work?
Michael Grunwald: Thanks so much for your kind words. Susan and I have teamed up to work on investigative stories ever since Katrina. She had a real expertise in terrorism and homeland security issues; for several years, I've pursued a rather embarrassing obsession with the Army Corps of Engineers. So we did some initial work on FEMA's response, and some stories on how the Corps and Congress left New Orleans so badly protected--and then we spent the last two months or so digging into DHS.
College Park, Md.: Kudos on an enlightening article - and long overdue.........
What's missing is a similar expose of the TSA, one of the most operationally dysfunctional agencies within DHS.
As President of the Md. Airport Managers Association and Manager of College Park Airport, I have seen firsthand the economic devastation caused by TSA buffoonery....Many private sector businesses forced to shutter their doors, flight activity reduced by 92%, aircraft populations reduced by 60% etc.
TSA's institutional arrogance should not go unchallenged....Any plans to expose any of their antics to public scrutiny?
Susan B. Glasser: Seems like everybody has a favorite DHS whipping post -- and in the middle of holiday travel season, with no one looking forward to airport lines, surly screeners, etc., I'm sure TSA is on a lot of lists. We'll be passing along all these suggestions and more to our colleague Spencer Hsu, who is the Post's homeland security reporter, and Sara Goo, our colleague who covers aviation.
McLean, Va.: Thank you for your hard work and good reporting. What role did Neo-Conservative ideology play in the decline of FEMA? Public statements declared that FEMA had become an entitlement program, that its budget would be cut, that compassionate conservatism called for religious charities to serve Americans struck by misfortune. Was this a bouquet thrown to the "political base" or a set of beliefs that were acted upon? My question is straight -- I don't have an answer.
Susan B. Glasser: Interesting and provocative notion -- however, our reporting didn't find anything to support that idea. Basically, we found that the original architects of DHS really thought they were going to beef up FEMA's capacities, rather than dismantle the organization. I think that's what makes this such an interesting Washington story -- about how Congress works, how a little agency in the bowels of the Justice Dept. got itself taken out of FEMA inside the new department and how that started to unravel FEMA in the end.
Alexandria, Va.: I found your article highly interesting, particularly having worked on the ground floor of both FEMA's original Office of National Preparedness and the then-DOJ's Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP). You touched upon the morale decay in FEMA as a result of preparedness functions transferring over to ODP.
I'd just like to add that the morale decay was already well along in FEMA before that occurred. Indeed, under Witt's leadership Preparedness was often seen as the red-headed stepchild, and bitter infighting and bureaucratic turf wars was in full force. The ineptitude that resulted from these turf wars and the inability to bring in fresh minds and perspectives was, in my opinion, a strong reason for Congress pushing to keep ODP completely out of FEMA. Comparing the staff of ODP to FEMA was like comparing apples to oranges. ODP had a young, energetic, fresh approach to collaborative end-results-oriented processes, whereas FEMA had old-schoolers who had been in the field for 20+ years with little or no desire to bring ideas, collaboration, and results to the table. FEMA's bureaucrats were so embedded in their own internal turf wars that they essentially cut their nose off to spite their face.
Michael Grunwald: This is an interesting comment from the inside. James Lee Witt was by almost all accounts an extremely successful FEMA director--George W. Bush said during one of the presidential debates in 2000 that Witt had done a "really good job"--but we did hear from quite a few people that his focus was on improving FEMA's response to natural disasters, rather than preparing for terrorist attacks. He had a chance to start up ODP at FEMA, but he turned it down. And when a FEMA staffer says that when he tried to lobby Congress to give ODP to FEMA in 2002, the politicians kept telling him: You had your chance, and you opted not to take it, so bye-bye, get out of my office.
Washington, D.C.: (former TSA staffer here) Fascinating series so far - the making of DHS will be a fantastic case study in management failures at some point in the future (if not already). Will the series look at the abysmal birth of TSA? With four agency heads in four years, multiple reorganizations, and seemingly daily shifts in agency focus, TSA would seem to be the poster child for agency building gone horribly wrong. I think one thing that plagued TSA (and perhaps other parts of DHS, though the series seems to gloss over this aspect) is the meddling of members of Congress in the formulation of agency mission/policy. How much of the blame for the problems of DHS should be placed at the feet of Congress (and if so, any members in particular?).
Susan B. Glasser: Another nominee for a TSA article -- great future grist for our colleagues. I think and hope people will be studying this government merger for decades to come; the last time the government attempted anything this big was back in 1947 w/the post World War II creation of the Department of Defense, a process that many scholars view as having continued right up until the mid-1980s with the passage of further reforms in the Goldwater-Nichols act. So it can take a long time to get it right...
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the articles. As a long time FEMA employee I know now that I was not being paranoid. Two years ago I told my brothers that we had been destroyed and this government would not be able to respond to a major disaster. You proved me correct.
I am now hoping for an early out. This agency is destroyed and will never come back. As a friend told me who does background checks, DHS is now being run by young former campaign workers who are totally clueless and lack guidance of the grey beards. It's time to leave....
Susan B. Glasser: Fascinating perspective here, and typical of many comments we encountered from FEMA veterans in the course of working on this story. The level of disillisionment is striking, and appears to have begun well before Katrina.
Washington, D.C.: As an ODP employee I'm finding the series to be informative, to say the least. What strikes me as tragic about this is that we at the implementation level-regardless of whether we work for FEMA or ODP--all have the same goal in mind; that is, we care deeply about helping America be as safe and prepared as possible. Yet we all suffer for the turf battles and arguments the political appointees and the entrenched bureaucrats in both agencies generate.
Yes, I was opposed to being brought under FEMA; that being said, I think the important thing for both sides to remember is "What constitutes the greater good for the States and locals?" Foolishly optimistic and naive for a Federal Employee, I know-but ultimately, it's the point of all of our jobs.
Thanks for the series. And please remember-there are hard-working Feds who care deeply about serving American citizens in ODP, too.
Susan B. Glasser: What an interesting set of comments... The turf war between FEMA and ODP clearly set the stage for one of the major organizational battles of the new department, where even the basic idea of a "one-stop shop" for states and locals to deal with the federal homeland security apparatus proved almost impossible to create. But it's heartening to know that even the turf warriors themselves can see the failures that can result...
New York, N.Y.: What is the incentive to defend turf if you are a federal employee and are going to lose your job in a few years when the next administration comes in? Why don't they just do what's best for the country and worry about defending against attacks? I don't get it...
Michael Grunwald: This is a damn good question. Here's one answer: In Washington, but not only in Washington, a person's self-image is often wrapped up in their job; people don't like the idea that their agency is considered less important than another, or less capable of executing a mission than another, etc. But here's another answer: People who run agencies tend to believe in those agencies. Mike Brown clearly had some personality issues with the people around Tom Ridge, but there were also substantive differences. Brown thought that preparedness and response needed to be together in a seamless web, since the same people who respond to disasters need to prepare to respond. But Ridge's people eventually (not initially!) embraced a larger view of preparedness that also included protection and response; they saw FEMA as a pure response agency. To what extent did they reach that conclusion because they thought Brown was a jerk who only cared about FEMA? It's hard to know for sure. Probably they don't even know for sure.
Washington, D.C.: I was at DHS for the first two years of its existence and must say that the biggest failing I have seen is the failure to create working regional offices. DHS HQs seems to think they need to "get Washington right" before they have the ability to work regionally and locally. I think that's like DOD saying they have to "get the Pentagon right" before having any field commands --- who is going to do the work? Washington or people in the field? Let's get some real results throughout America and make the inside-the Beltway battle secondary. Unfortunately, DHS has made itself irrelevant because it has no capability to deliver locally - with the exception of the Coast Guard and Secret Service.
Susan B. Glasser: This regions plan was in fact the top priority of DHS's first secretary, Tom Ridge, and he pursued it without success his entire term in office. The White House continually rebuffed him, so much so that it became embarrassing even since he had repeatedly told his aides he was going to be doing this any day now. The White House did not want to rock the boat politically and many of Ridge's own undersecretaries saw it as undermining them. Now, ironically, in the post-Katrina world, I suspect there will be momentum for some regional structure to DHS, at least to deal with crisis response.
Lyme, Conn.: Great leaders are those who knew their goals and worked to obtain them, and they become great because they figure out ways to overcome the obstacles that prevent them from reaching their goals. The Rudman-Hart Commission provided us with a list of important goals, and even if one did not agree with all their statements, the events of September 11, 2005 gave us common ground for items that needed to be achieved. From your series, it seems there were no great leaders in the Homeland Security Department: only bureaucrats whose attention to bureaucracy prevented from their goals. My question: do you see there could have been any great leader who could have overcome the bureaucratic maze of the Federal government, or is the problem just too large to expect anyone to overcome?
Susan B. Glasser: This is a really tough question, unknowable really. But it's clear that Tom Ridge was aware of the big challenge he was taking on, he told his friend and fellow Bush administration official Christine Todd Whitman that he feared he might be in a "no-win situation." Many smart students of mergers have noted not only that the vast majority of such undertakings fail, but even those that work take years in many cases to produce tangible positive results. The analogy we often heard reporting the series was mid-air refueling...
Great Falls, Va.: After all the work you've done on DHS and FEMA, I'm curious about your personal reaction to it all. You've chronicled all the failures and missteps but at the end of the day, how do you feel about DHS and FEMA? The question the average citizen asks at the end of the day is: Am I safe? When you finished this series, did you feel safer or less so? And do you think it can be turned around?
Michael Grunwald: I like the way you phrased that: Am I safe? Some DHS officials would like the question to be: Am I safer? I happen to think that's a bit silly; after spending more than $100 billion on this agency--not to mention the increase in awareness after 9/11--we better be safer. And there are tangible ways that we are: hardened cockpits, radiological detectors at airports, etc. But are we safe? Or at least: Are we as safe as we should be? I don't know anyone who would answer that question yes. One example: We showed how Karl Rove helped scuttle a plan by Christine Todd Whitman and Ridge to enhance security at chemical plants. Three years later, there's still no regulation of those plans; people call them "prepositioned weapons of mass destruction." Richard Falkenrath, who helped design DHS and was in the White House when it got started, recently had some unbelievably scary testimony about how we haven't done anything to fix that problem.
Then again, I'm a chicken.
Whitehall, Mich.: Could someone explain to me why the DHS gave our local fire dept. $15,000 dollars to by a remote controlled fire truck to teach kids about fire prevention? What does this have to do with homeland security?
Susan B. Glasser: Yes, and many more examples -- the bulletproof vests for dogs, the leather jackets for cops, etc. The question of risk-based grants for homeland security has been a vexing one ever since the billions started flowing and Congress insisted on a formula that per capita has sent more money to Wyoming than New York. The Bush administration has consistently fought that, but the legislation to really impose risk-based funding and sensible spending of all this money hasn't taken hold yet.
Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for your series. I hope it will be published in a book form. It will be a valuable source for students and educators as well as those working in homeland security and emergency management.
You have captured what has been happening and unfolding in the government post 9/11 better so far than any account that I have seen in the media. John Brinkerhoff (formerly an acting director of the National Preparedness Directorate at FEMA) had an early article in 2002 in the Journal of Homeland Security (online) that spelled out the problems of that could be expected if a DHS were created. The lead report at http:/
Thanks again for all you efforts to shed light on how the government's efforts in homeland security and emergency management have been unfolding since 9/11.
Susan B. Glasser: Thanks you for the thoughtful read. We found it to be a fascinating reporting exercise -- from the basic question of what is 'homeland security' meant to address, down to the bureaucratic internecine struggles that took up the department leaders' time.
Washington, D.C.: Finally we have some real investigative reporting. This is why I read The Washington Post. Thank you for your insight and critical analysis on this important domestic issue. What will you two do next?
Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your nice note. It's at these point in these chats where we roll out the obligatory: Thank God for Don Graham. The Post is unbelievably supportive of this kind of in-depth reporting. But to answer your question, Susan and I plan to spend the next several months doing nothing.
Newark, N.J.: You have a Department of Homeland Security that doesn't investigate matters of Homeland Security? How's that play with the public? I don't recall the last time a Predator or MS-13 member flew a plane into a building but according to J. Edgar Garicia (ICEMAN) they are a national threat. The FBI smelled blood in the water and took full advantage of these MORONS in the G-5 breaking up of the Customs Service into two dysfunctional agencies. Every aspect of ICE, including the name is a joke. CBP's one face at the border is another recipe for disaster. Do we really want a jack of all trades and master of nothing at the POE's? The FBI is loving this and the Border Patrol is scooping up the broken pieces. How can REAL walls and barriers be good for the nation after 9/11? Chertoff and the White House seem to think it is good because there is no plan to merge CBP and ICE back into a cohesive unit. Mueller would never allow it.
Susan B. Glasser: Some of the folks we spoke with at DHS considered the decision not to put the FBI in homeland security the fatal design flaw in the department. Certainly, the FBI and Department of Justice have been the chief bureaucratic rivals of DHS -- and seem to have won virtually all their fights, with the White House consistently taking their side. The FEMA battle in particular seems to showcase the historic divide between police/law enforcement approach on the one hand and fire/emergency response on the other.
Arlington, Va.: Excellent, well-written, and factual piece in today's Washington Post.
Part of the problem at DHS is the inability to communicate with the people who initially "own" Katrina and all future disasters: State and local communities.
Have you looked into the DHS information sharing failures of JRIES and HSIN? Congress will be examining the systemic inability of DHS to share information nationally as it investigates the Katrina response "issues."
Susan B. Glasser: Our colleagues here at the Post will be continuing to explore many issues related to DHS -- and the information-sharing controversies you mention are sure to figure prominently. Many sources I interviewed told me they considered the difficulties of the department's Intelligence Analysis and Infrastructure Protection directorate to be among the worst failings. Intelligence/information-sharing was a key reason the department was created and they have clearly not yet figured out how to make that work.
Prescott, Ariz.: I am reading the interesting posts of FEMA employees and they are right in line with what I observed as an outsider throughout the 90s. This is not a new problem; just an old one that was given a job much too important for it's level of ability.
Susan B. Glasser: Thanks for your thoughts... In the White House too there was a view that this was not a "prime-time agency" long before Katrina.
Washington, D.C.: As a DHS employee I really enjoyed yesterday's article. A couple of comments:
I agree with the comment that this is D.C. and turf wars are to be expected. I think in the case of DHS it's formation may have especially tough because most of the large components were law enforcement agencies who may regard maximum control/information as vital to ensuring that thier mission could be accomplished.
I would also like to point out that, although everyone regards this as the largest reorg of the government in many years, I believe that some of the internal consolidations of the past 25 years in DOD (creating a whole series of unified Army/Navy/Air Force agencies) may have been as large in terms of personnel and/or budget or assets.
Michael Grunwald: Law enforcement agencies, it must be said, do not have the best reputation for playing nicely in the sandbox. And here I'm particularly thinking of an agency whose initials are IBF, but not in that order. In fact, we spoke to several DHS officials who believe that the department really got hosed when that particular bureau wasn't included. Andy Card and other White House officials thought that was a political non-starter, but some of the guys at DHS thought it would've been worth the fight. It's hard to defend the homeland without the agency responsible for investigating threats to the homeland--especially when that agency doesn't like to share. But as you can see from the anecdote about FBI director Bob Mueller blowing a nutty because ICE wanted to change its name to Investigation and Criminal Enforcement--and winning--it would've been a hell of a fight.
San Diego, Calif.: Why didn't you feature the pork fest that 'Homeland security' funding seems to have quickly turned into? Also, did you not encounter distaste within its agencies for the fascistic associations of the term 'homeland' in the first place?
Michael Grunwald: The pork would be an excellent story. The Post has done an excellent job covering aspects of that pork. But it wasn't our story.
"Homeland" is kind of weird. But that wasn't our story, either.
Washington, D.C.: I spend a good deal of time working with both FEMA and TSA. On the good side, I can say that I've worked with some of the best and brightest. On the down side, I can say that I'm not sure that they work for the best and brightest. I don't mean to sound naive, but is there any hope of insulating the Department from political hiring and getting experienced leaders at all levels of management?
Michael Grunwald: No hope whatsoever!
Seriously, there are going to be political appointees at the top of any government agency. The hope is that they'll be qualified. And for all of Mike Brown's complaints, it's worth noting that he and four of his top seven aides had no emergency management experience before they got to FEMA.
Fairfax County, Va.: I realize that as reporters you do not write headlines (is that true?). But the headline stating that Michael Brown's earlier turf battles were to blame for FEMA's failure at Katrina is just flat contradictory to your article.
I read your article with interest and from what you write, this horrible character--however weaselly and annoying--seems to have been 100 percent right in his position that FEMA's "turf" was being taken and the results would be catastrophic in a real emergency. In other words, he lost the turf battles, but his arguments were right.
Do you agree the headline is totally off given the contents of your story, or did I miss something?
P.S. Still think he's an idiot. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Michael Grunwald: No, we don't write the headlines. But Mike Brown's turf wars did have a very serious impact on FEMA--or at least the fact that he kept losing them. And one reason he kept losing them was that Tom Ridge's leadership team saw him as a disloyal turf jockey--trying to stop Ridge from setting up an emergency operations center, making a federal case out of FEMA's name, trying to take over ODP, refusing to come to meetings after FEMA lost the National Response Plan, etc.
Vienna, Va.: I've read both articles and want to congratulate you on some very thorough reporting. Based on your reporting, are you of the opinion that DHS should be disestablished? What would be your recommendation for FEMA? Should it be broken out of DHS?
Michael Grunwald: Lots of questions like this. We thank you for the kind words, but we're not in the suggestion-box business. We just tried to tell the story of how things got how they are.
McLean, Va.: Turf wars and power struggles are a common part of Washington life, as you point out. What seemed to be missing from your stories, thus far (and I hope you address them) are the incredible power that OMB and the DHS Management and Budget Directorate have on implementation and on policy. Where is your analysis of the OMB "passbacks" that zeroed out programs that would have fixed many of the problems that you outlined? Where is the analysis of the accounting games that Janet Hale's shop would play with the agencies, the most prominent of which was the ICE debacle? There is much material to develop here if you desire to tell a complete story. Here's hoping that you continue the good work.
Michael Grunwald: Here's another one from an insider. OMB is certainly huge. And so is the question of money; I don't want to get into the partisan debates unfolding on this site--there are a lot of bush-bashing questions--but it's true that democrats have proposed a lot more funding for DHS than the republicans. money isn't necessarily the answer to the problems we've described, but it's also true that if you have more money, you can screen more cargo containers at ports.
Reston, Va.: Are the Homeland Security funds going to be directed to the big cities where they are needed the most?
Michael Grunwald: Another excellent question; this one's up to Congress. DHS officials are generally appalled that the current grant system gives much more money per-capita to Wyoming than New York. (Thank you, Founding Fathers, for creating that Senate!) There's a bill that's supposed to fix this, but it hasn't passed yet, as far as I know.
Washington, D.C.: The end of your excellent article in The Post this morning implies that Chertoff late response activation was perhaps more to blame for the response that Brown's perceived ineptitude?
Is this correct?
Michael Grunwald: Not necessarily. Chertoff was late activating the NRP, but that doesn't excuse FEMA's performance during Katrina.
Washington, D.C.: I have read that FEMA's pre-2004 election reaction to Isabelle in Florida was, if anything, overly responsive. This perhaps implies that responsiveness was possible with the tools FEMA had.
Is this correct or was the scale of Isabel and Katrina too different to draw such comparisons?
Michael Grunwald: I don't think you mean Isabel, which was 2003; we mentioned it because HHS tried to seize an agency from DHS during that storm. But the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has done some excellent reporting on FEMA scattering too much money around Florida after the four hurricanes in 2004--right before the election. Mike Brown did a fair amount of bragging inside the administration about his role in helping the president's reelection campaign.
Washington, D.C.: Among those you interviewed for the series, was there any type of consensus on what should be done to make DHS a functional bureaucracy that can accomplish its mission?
Michael Grunwald: no consensus at all.
Ashland, Mo.: What were the supposed advantages of creating one super-agency, which if it doesn't work probably means nothing works, than having several smaller agencies, some of which would work even if others don't?
Michael Grunwald: The idea was to coordinate agencies that were doing similar functions in different parts of the government. For example, the different agencies working at the border were scattered around Treasury, Justice, and other departments. DHS provides "One Face at the Border." The department was also supposed to help coordinate intelligence from a number of agencies--but at the last minute, the White House decided not to give DHS the new terrorist tracking center that was supposed to connect all those post/911 dots.
Arlington, Va.: As a career federal employee at another agency, I would say that FEMA's treatment of its career employees and its incompetence is typical of the Bush Administration's disdain of professional career federal employees.
For example, friends at other regulatory agencies such as the Labor Department, EPA, FTC, FDA, and Homeland Security relate how arrogant, and inexperienced Bush appointees over the past five years demoralized career professionals and sabotage their agency's statutory mission. Downsizing and contracting out of career federal positions is the norm.
The norm for the Bush led bureaucracy is incompetence at DHS, FEMA, CIA, DOD or EPA.
How different from the first Presidents HW Bush and Clinton who genuinely attempted to improve civil service and its employees.
Would you agree?
Michael Grunwald: This is one of the partisan questions. I'm not going to get into too many of these. But I do think it's fair to ask whether the failures at DHS--particularly the lack of support from the White House--is a symptom of an administration that didn't really support the concept of a big bureaucracy in the first place.
Newark, N.J.: The DHS is dysfunctional already. We don't need the Fan Belt Inspectors, who still fill out paper forms, making things worse. As for law enforcement. Merge the Special Agents back with our Inspectors and we'll show you what real, comprehensive border enforcement is. Every rational person who has investigated this issue has come to the same conclusion to merge ICE and CBP. The DOJ never understood the concept of enforcing the borders. They believe in letting people and things into the country first, then trying to enforce the laws.
Michael Grunwald: Lots of comments like this, too. There's a lot of interest in merging ICE and CBP to create one big-ass border agency.
New York, N.Y.: Despite being pulled into one huge conglomerate called DHS, the public perceives that it's a unified agency - which it is not. I think your article touches a bit on this, but not enough.
Currently, without ever having established the administrative infrastructure to support each part of DHS (with it's various missions), DHS components are paying each other for various services like tech support and, job postings and hiring. Space in some districts has become a bargaining chip and commodity. And shared responsibilities wind up being dumped because no one wants to share the blame.
Michael Grunwald: Tom Ridge and his team certainly wanted to create a unified DHS; that was the point of that branding effort that led the first day of the series. So far it's been more branding than reality, but there are some real achievements. For example, they've merged many of the various agencies' HR departments, and payroll systems. But I'm not sure they're creating tremendous economies of scale yet.
Prescott, Ariz.: Hi, I am a retired California law that specialized in natural disaster insurance. I dealt with FEMA for years before the merger and FEMA has always been a joke. They always waited for the Red Cross to do everything for free. It was a classic case of government saying "no" often enough to make everyone go away. We used to say in the insurance world that anyone who was stuck with FEMA was in deep ....." When FEMA was made part of DHS, I knew this would happen eventually. FEMA is a completely incompetent organization. What do you think about privately delegating everything, and I mean everything, that FEMA does to the American Red Cross via private contract? That's who does the work anyway!
Michael Grunwald: FEMA's failures have led many leaders at DHS and in Congress to draw similar conclusions, and further weaken the agency's power and budget. By contrast, when my good friends at the Army Corps of Engineers mess up big time--as they did in the 1927 Mississippi flood, and apparently in Katrina--they tend to gain power and money.
Let's all remember that if those Corps floodwalls hadn't failed, we probably wouldn't be talking about how FEMA is dysfunctional, and how DHS is beset by turf battles, and how America isn't ready for the next catastrophe. I really wish those floodwalls hadn't failed.
Michael Grunwald: OK, I think with that detour into the Corps--it wouldn't be me if there wasn't a detour into the Corps--I'm going to sign off. I do want to say that we recognize that there are thousands of hardworking and--I hesitate to use this loaded word but it's the right one--patriotic people working at DHS. We also recognize that the people trying to put this department together wanted to do the right thing. Corporate mergers are hard; about 70 percent of them fail, and almost none of them succeed right away. So this is still a work in progress.
Thanks for the great questions. And, as always, Hi Mom and Dad!
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