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Former FEMA Chief Questioned by Congress

February 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Appearing before a Senate investigative committee, Michael Brown, the former head of FEMA, went further than ever before in casting blame. Brown himself has been widely criticized for the slow official reaction in the days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast last August. He resigned from the federal emergency agency in September.

Today, Brown told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that’s continuing a five-month investigation of the Katrina response that he was testifying after the White House declined his offer to withhold testimony based on executive privilege. He said FEMA’s failure can be traced to the 2002 decision to place the small emergency agency within the massive Department of Homeland Security.

MICHAEL BROWN: Madam Chairman, I tell you that what occurred after FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. There was a cultural clash, which didn’t recognize the absolute, inherent science of preparing for disaster, responding to it, mitigating against future disasters and recovering from disasters.

And any time that you break that cycle of preparing, responding, recovering and mitigating, you are doomed to failure, and the policies and the decisions that were implemented by DHS put FEMA on a path to failure. And I think the evidence that we’ll have before you today will show the actions that were taken that caused that failure. And I beg this committee to take corrective action to fix that so these disasters don’t occur in the future.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brown said in the hours after Katrina hit on Aug. 29 last year, he received the first reports of New Orleans’ levees being breached from FEMA employee Marty Bahamonde, and that he soon told officials at the White House, including chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagen.

MICHAEL BROWN: First and foremost, I alerted headquarters as to those reports and asked them to get in contact with Marty to confirm those reports. And I also put a call in and spoke to I believe it was Deputy Chief of Staff Hagen on at least two occasions on that day to inform him of what was going on.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Was there anyone else that you called at the White House to inform them of these developments?

MICHAEL BROWN: It would have been either Andy Card or Joe Hagen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Officials at the Department of Homeland Security have said they were unaware of the severity of the problems in New Orleans until two to three days after the hurricane. Today, Brown contradicted that, saying he regularly informed department officials via video teleconferences, or VTCs.

MICHAEL BROWN: All they had to do was to listen to those VTCs and pay attention to those VTCs, and they would have known what was going on. And, in fact, I e-mailed a White House official that evening about how bad it was, making sure that they knew, again, how bad that it was, identifying that we were going to have environmental problems and housing problems and all of those kinds of problems. So it doesn’t surprise me that DHS officials would say, well, we weren’t aware. You know, they’re off doing other things. It’s a natural disaster, so we’re just going to allow FEMA to do all of that. That had become the mentality within the department.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brown’s testimony did not go unchallenged. Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman questioned whether Brown himself had done all he could to push the government’s response to Katrina.

SEN. NORM COLEMAN: And I understand there are structural problems. I understand some of the concerns that have been raised about the function of DHS and the integration of FEMA. But as I listen to your testimony, you’re not prepared to kind of put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies and say, you know something? I made some big mistakes. I wasn’t focused. I didn’t get things done. And instead, what you’ve got is, I was going to — the problems are structural. I knew it up front. I really tried to change it. The record, the entirety of the record, doesn’t reflect that.

And perhaps you may get a more sympathetic hearing if you had a willingness to kind of confess your own sins in this. You know, your testimony here is that you’re going to communicate to the president as to what he understood. I’m not sure what you understood. I’m not sure you got it. I’ve got to tell you, the record — not the e-mails, but the record — reflects that you didn’t get it, or you didn’t, in writing or some way, make commands that would move people to do what has to be done until way after it should have been done.

MICHAEL BROWN: Senator, with all due respect, what do you want me to say? I have admitted to mistakes publicly. I’ve admitted to mistakes in hearings. What more, Sen. Coleman, do you want from me?

SEN. NORM COLEMAN: Well, I think –

MICHAEL BROWN: What do you want from me? I’m asking you. What do you want from me?

SEN. NORM COLEMAN: What I’m hearing today and what I heard from your testimony is coming in and talking about all these structural failures — that the die was cast, that was your testimony today. And by the way, I have my own questions about the integration of FEMA into DHS. But what I heard today from you, that the die was cast.

MICHAEL BROWN: It was.

SEN. NORM COLEMAN: And what I’m saying, Mr. Brown, I’m saying that, in fact, no leadership makes a difference. You didn’t provide the leadership.

KWAME HOLMAN: But New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg suggested Brown may be targeted to take disproportionate blame for the government’s response to Katrina.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG: You have been selected as the designated scapegoat. That’s what I see — because I think that we’re clear on President Bush’s message to you on Friday after the storm struck on Monday. And while I don’t have — yes, I do have the precise words: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Now, I can’t imagine the president would trivialize this situation just to be a good guy with you. Somebody must have said to him you were doing things right and you were doing your best, whether it was good enough or not. It may not have been good enough.

I served in World War II. I know sometimes no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t protect everybody that we wanted. So keep your chin up and fight back, as you did.

You’re not here to be the– I said “designated scapegoat” before– designated target, call it whatever you want.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor noted that Brown didn’t always stay within the Homeland Security Department’s chain of command.

SEN. MARK PRYOR: You served there under two different secretaries, Secretary Ridge and Secretary Chertoff. And, not to put words in your mouth, but basically, as I understand your previous testimony today, there were critical times when, instead of talking to Secretary Chertoff, you, in effect, went around him and went to other people in the administration to try to get things done. Is that a fair assessment?

MICHAEL BROWN: Yes. And, in fact, you’re going to hear from witnesses today that I think are going to say, Brown didn’t think he worked for Chertoff, and that Brown didn’t think he was part of the team. And the reason they say that is because I had a mission, and my mission was to help disaster victims.

And I wasn’t going to – I mean, I was going to do everything I could to prevent bureaucracy or to prevent new layers of bureaucracy or people who didn’t understand the relationship between state and local governments and FEMA to get in the way of doing what we needed to get done. So, yes, I was an in-fighter.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, the committee heard from homeland security officials, including Matthew Broderick, the department’s director of operations coordination, who testified Brown did not always keep them informed.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Who is the person who was responsible for communicating accurate, timely, vital information to you?

MATTHEW BRODERICK: At that time, it was Mr. Brown, Secretary Brown, Undersecretary Brown. There’s an obligation from my experience in the military — and been doing this a long time, you know, from Vietnam to evacuating Saigon to evacuating Yong Peng– I ran southern Somalia for a while. I went back and evacuated Mogadishu. I’ve been in a lot of this stuff a lot of times. Juniors or subordinates have a responsibility to keep their seniors informed.

There was a prevailing attitude from Mr. Brown that he did not want Homeland Security to interfere with any of his operations of what he was doing, and that came through loud and clear. So we trusted, based on their past record, that they would do the proper thing, take the proper actions and keep us informed. We were not getting that information.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee is scheduled to hear from the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, next week.