Sent: 09 September 2005 14:39
Subject: OpEd from today's NY Times
September 9, 2005
Point Those Fingers
By PAUL KRUGMAN
To understand the history of the Bush administration's response to disaster,
just follow the catchphrases.
First, look at 2001 Congressional testimony by Joseph Allbaugh, President
Bush's first pick to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, he
said, would emphasize "Responsibility and Accountability" (capital letters
and boldface in the original statement). He repeated the phrase several
What Mr. Allbaugh seems to have meant was that state and local government
officials shouldn't count on FEMA to bail them out if they didn't prepare
adequately for disasters. They should accept responsibility for protecting
their constituents, and be held accountable if they don't.
But those were rules for the little people. Now that the Bush administration
has botched its own response to disaster, we're not supposed to play the
"blame game." Scott McClellan used that phrase 15 times over the course of
just two White House press briefings.
It might make sense to hold off on the criticism if this were the first big
disaster on Mr. Bush's watch, or if the chain of mistakes in handling
Hurricane Katrina were out of character. But even with the most generous
possible assessment, this is the administration's second big policy
disaster, after Iraq. And the chain of mistakes was perfectly in character
- there are striking parallels between the errors the administration made in
Iraq and the errors it made last week.
In Iraq, the administration displayed a combination of paralysis and denial
after the fall of Baghdad, as uncontrolled looting destroyed much of Iraq's
The same deer-in-the-headlights immobility prevailed as Katrina approached
and struck the Gulf Coast. The storm gave plenty of warning. By the
afternoon of Monday, Aug. 29, the flooding of New Orleans was well under way
- city officials publicly confirmed a breach in the 17th Street Canal at 2
p.m. Yet on Tuesday federal officials were still playing down the problem,
and large-scale federal aid didn't arrive until last Friday.
In Iraq the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the country during
the crucial first year after Saddam's fall - the period when an effective
government might have forestalled the nascent insurgency - was staffed on
the basis of ideological correctness and personal connections rather than
qualifications. At one point Ari Fleischer's brother was in charge of
The administration followed the same principles in staffing FEMA. The agency
had become a highly professional organization during the Clinton years, but
under Mr. Bush it reverted to its former status as a "turkey farm," a source
of patronage jobs.
As Bloomberg News puts it, the agency's "upper ranks are mostly staffed with
people who share two traits: loyalty to President George W. Bush and little
or no background in emergency management." By now everyone knows FEMA's
current head went from overseeing horse shows to overseeing the nation's
response to disaster, with no obvious qualifications other than the fact
that he was Mr. Allbaugh's college roommate.
All that's missing from the Katrina story is an expensive reconstruction
effort, with lucrative deals for politically connected companies, that fails
to deliver essential services. But give it time - they're working on that,
Why did the administration make the same mistakes twice? Because it paid no
political price the first time.
Can the administration escape accountability again? Some of the tactics it
has used to obscure its failure in Iraq won't be available this time. The
reality of the catastrophe was right there on our TV's, although FEMA is now
trying to prevent the media from showing pictures of the dead. And people
who ask hard questions can't be accused of undermining the troops.
But the other factors that allowed the administration to evade
responsibility for the mess in Iraq are still in place. The media will be
tempted to revert to he-said-she-said stories rather than damning factual
accounts. The effort to shift blame to state and local officials is under
way. Smear campaigns against critics will start soon, if they haven't
already. And raw political power will be used to block any independent
Will this be enough to let the administration get away with another failure?
Let's hope not: if the administration isn't held accountable for what just
happened, it will keep repeating its mistakes. Michael Brown and Michael
Chertoff will receive presidential medals, and the next disaster will be
Advance Men in Charge
Published: September 9, 2005
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced this week that it didn't
want the news media taking photographs of the dead in New Orleans. A FEMA
spokeswoman talked unconvincingly about the dignity of the dead. But the
bizarre demand, a creepy echo of the ban on news media coverage of the
coffins returning from Iraq, is simply the latest spasm of a gutted federal
It's not really all that surprising that the officials who run FEMA are
stressing that all-important emergency response function: the public
relations campaign. As it turns out, that's all they really have experience
Michael Brown was made the director after he was asked to resign from the
International Arabian Horse Association, and the other top officials at FEMA
don't exactly have impressive résumés in emergency management either. The
Chicago Tribune reported on Wednesday that neither the acting deputy
director, Patrick Rhode, nor the acting deputy chief of staff, Brooks
Altshuler, came to FEMA with any previous experience in disaster management.
Ditto for Scott Morris, the third in command until May.
Mr. Altshuler and Mr. Rhode had worked in the White House's Office of
National Advance Operations. Those are the people who decide where the
president will stand on stage and which loyal supporters will be permitted
into the audience - and how many firefighters will be diverted from rescue
duty to surround the president as he patrols the New Orleans airport trying
to look busy. Mr. Morris was a press handler with the Bush presidential
campaign. Previously, he worked for the company that produced Bush campaign
So when Mr. Brown finally got around to asking Homeland Security Secretary
Michael Chertoff for extra people for Katrina, it wasn't much of a departure
for Mr. Brown to say that one of the things he wanted them to do was to
"convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials,
community organizations and the general public." We'd like them to stay
focused on conveying food, water and medical help to victims.
Political patronage has always been a hallmark of Washington life. But
President Bill Clinton appointed political pals at FEMA who actually knew
something about disaster management. The former FEMA director James Lee
Witt, whose tenure is widely considered a major success, was a friend of Mr.
Clinton's when he took office in 1993, but he had run the Arkansas Office of
Emergency Services. His top staff came from regional FEMA offices.
Surely there are loyal Republicans among the 50 directors of state emergency
services. But President Bush chose to make FEMA a dumping ground for
unqualified cronies - a sure sign that he wanted to hasten the degradation
of an agency that conservative Republicans have long considered an evil of
big government. Katrina has proved that federal disaster help is vital, and
that Mr. Brown and his team of advance men can't do the job. What America
needs are federal disaster relief people who actually know something about