In a perfect world–or, at least one not so imperfect–people who make the right call about important stuff would be rewarded and those who are wrong would not be. That’s not how things work in Bushland. Remember those lovely medals George W. Bush handed to CIA chief George Tenet and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, even though both were responsible for tremendous miscalculations on Iraq? In recent days, there have been calls for the firing of Michael Brown, the FEMA director–who got his job because he was a college chum of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign manager. Like DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown screwed the pooch, and both in recent days have issued CYA statements rather than acknowledge responsibility. Yet Bush praised his FEMA guy last week, saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Let’s consider an obvious comparison: Michael Brown and James Lee Witt, who Bill Clinton appointed head of FEMA. As has been widely noted, before joining FEMA, Brown was a lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association. Before Witt was tapped as FEMA chief, he had served for four years as director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Bush placed a crony–Brown was also an attorney for the Oklahoma Republican Party–in charge of FEMA (and permitted the agency’s disaster work to be downgraded). Clinton gave the job to a fellow with years of experience in disaster management and maintained a close connection to Witt and FEMA, which then had Cabinet-level status.
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts.
Brown, Chertoff and Bush were not prepared for this foreseen tragedy, but FEMA’s lack of readiness was predicted. By Witt, it turns out. In March 2004, he testified at a hearing conducted by two House subcommittees. The issue at hand was DHS’s plan to consolidate–that is, reduce the number of–FEMA’s regional and field offices. Witt’s comments were all-too perceptive. He practically predicted the mess to come in New Orleans. As you read his remarks–which I excerpt below–think about two things. First, disaster-management experts outside the administration were worried about FEMA long before Hurricane Katrina came howling. Second, the poor people of New Orleans might have been much better off had someone who knew about disaster relief been in charge during this tragedy. Here’s a portion of Witt’s testimony:
As you continue to examine DHS and its growth, I want you to know that I and many others in the emergency management community across the country are deeply concerned about the direction FEMA is headed. First, we are greatly concerned that the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare, and respond has been sharply eroded. Second, FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.