Richard Falkenrath was homeland security policy adviser to the president (2001-2003) and deputy homeland security adviser with the Department of Homeland Security (2003-2004). In this interview, he offers an overview of the Bush administration's thinking on FEMA and its place in the homeland security response, including why, after 9/11, despite hopes that FEMA would become "the genuine response arm for the domestic security operation of the U.S," it never happened. He also discusses FEMA's performance in the 1990s under James Lee Witt and the federal government's reluctance to impose standards on state and local agencies so as to ensure interoperable and resilient communication systems. As for the lessons of disasters like Katrina, he says there is a need to rethink the current federal compact with state and local authorities. With calamities such as Katrina, where local agencies are completely overwhelmed, Falkenrath says the federal government should have an enhanced capacity to "take over entirely." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 27, 2005.
When the decision was made to set up a Department of Homeland Security, you are there in the White House. What was the thinking?
Well, it was pretty clear there was no center of gravity in the executive branch for homeland security. There were many different Cabinet agencies with little pieces of responsibility. There was no leadership, no sort of center of gravity, as I said. And probably six months after 9/11, it had become really clear to the White House staff that the current configuration of executive authority was inadequate.
But earlier than that, [former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom] Ridge had been selected to come in and form the Office of Homeland Security.
That decision was made about 10 days after 9/11, and he was brought in in a staff role within the White House, so his authority was simply as an adviser to the president and a coordinator. Now, he was a national political figure. He and his office got an enormous amount of media attention, but he was not vested with executive authority.
There's no secret now that the White House resisted the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.
That's actually not entirely correct. The White House was not interested in it up until on June 6, 2002, when the president proposed it. Before then, there was a proposal from the Hart-Rudman Commission to create a much smaller entity than the department ultimately was.
And there was also the Lieberman bill. It passed out of the committee on a very narrow vote, and it was, frankly, ignored. And no one in the White House was taking it seriously, and it was never deemed a risk of happening against the will of the president.
They were against what?
Well, it was very close to the Hart-Rudman report, and it was much smaller than DHS [Department of Homeland Security]. But the fact is, in the first six months after 9/11, the president and his senior staff weren't really focusing on the issues of how to structure the executive branch. They were just trying to deal with the immediate consequences of 9/11.
It was about March of 2002 that the White House chief of staff [Andy Card] decided it was time to evaluate the configuration of the executive branch as a whole. And so Andy Card started this process. It was conducted in secret and culminated in the president's announcement of the department.
You're saying that the Lieberman bill was perceived as not sufficient?
The Lieberman bill was just ignored. No one in the White House in the executive branch was paying any attention to it.
It was gaining steam on the Hill, was it not?
We didn't think so. Republicans controlled the House, and there was absolutely zero possibility that it would become law against the will of the president. Sen. [Joe] Lieberman, with all due respects, hadn't even come close to dealing with the jurisdictional challenges he was going to face in his own branch in the Senate, … so this was never going happen unless the president proposed it. …
And Card convinced the president that there should be a Homeland Security Department?
That's right. Sometime in May of 2002, Andy Card persuaded the president on that.
And what was Card's argument?
Card argued partly what I just told you: that there was no center of gravity in all of the departments, that you needed to consolidate these functions. … I think he also argued that the time was ripe, and that if the president proposed it, the executive branch, the Cabinet officers would fall in line, and the Congress would swiftly pass it.
And so the president decides to advocate for a Department of Homeland Security that's far broader and larger than what was proposed out of the Hart-Rudman report or the Lieberman bill? A good idea?
I think it was a good idea. And I still do.
That is a tremendous weight, … all those organizations to come together and find out how to talk to one another and get all those cultures to work together. What kind of challenge was that?
It is one of the hardest government challenges that the federal executive branch has ever faced, but it had to be faced. And the alternative was to try to coordinate all of that from a staff role within the White House. It's very difficult, because in that circumstance, all these agencies, like the Coast Guard and TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and Customs, Immigration and FEMA and the Secret Service, all reported through separate chains of command to the president, had separate statutory authorities vested in separate presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate, with separate appropriations that must be expended by law as appropriated. And that made it basically impossible to get all of the different agencies acting in harmony, in concert.
And so by vesting all of these executive authorities in one Cabinet officer, he will have the power in law and under the president's direction to force these agencies to act in concert.
What were the gains for FEMA?
Pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, pre-DHS, it was a highly reactive, almost passive organization that basically waited for formal requests to come in from governors, sometimes mayors, for federal assistance, and it would coordinate that assistance on its own timetable. FEMA was not a response agency. It had no deployable assets on its own. It was not a highly proactive agency. It was a rather passive agency.
Post-9/11, it was pretty clear that that was inadequate for the federal government. It was our hope ... that it would be the genuine response arm for the domestic security operation of the United States.
That didn't really happen, frankly. That was the idea in June of 2002, but it didn't really happen.
The idea was never fully embraced by then-Director of FEMA Mike Brown, or even by the secretary of homeland security. They had a lot of other things to do on their plate, and Tom Ridge in particular, as I said, had one of the biggest managerial challenges that any government official has ever faced. And this issue of response and building FEMA into something more than it was and integrating it into the department was sort of a second- or third-order priority. I think that's too bad, but that's how I saw it develop.
Was there a sense at the time that FEMA was getting overlooked?
I think there was a sense at the time. There was also a sense at the time that FEMA basically ... just sort of wanted to be left alone, to stay the way they were and to pretty much be ignored until there was some sort of natural disaster or serious weather event, when they would respond as they had learned to in the '90s. And they needed to keep doing that, and they basically did that fairly effectively until Katrina.
I was always hoping that they would become something bigger and something more proactive, more forward-leaning than they were.
You've said that the president's first post-9/11 budget, in February 2002, included $3.5 billion for FEMA -- a tenfold increase. But the appropriations committees, particularly in the Senate, said "no" and expressed a lack of confidence in FEMA to do the job. Where did that lack of confidence in FEMA come from?
Well, partly from the sense that I just described to you, that FEMA was a very passive agency. It was a quite small agency and frankly had not done very well in really stressful, demanding exercises. There was an exercise called TOPOFF 1, a full-field counterterrorism exercise that had one attack in Portsmouth, N.H., and another in Denver. And FEMA was forced to operate simultaneously with the other response agency, namely the FBI, and they did very badly in this exercise. That was in 2000.
There was a sense that this agency really wasn't up to scratch. It was not a front-line agency, and it would simply be spending the money funding sort of fire trucks and basic things, not the really important assets for preventing terrorist attacks and responding to terrorist attacks.
I must say I disagreed with that. I was in favor of combining preparedness and response in FEMA. ...
This was under TOPOFF 1? This was James Lee Witt's FEMA?
Your opinion of James Lee Witt's FEMA is not very positive?
Well, I think he did a good job as FEMA director. FEMA had performed disastrously in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew, and everyone recognized that. And I think James Lee Witt and the Clinton administration get credit for getting that agency back on its feet.
Well, how do you square that with the idea that they were only responsive to disasters?
I think the public relations effort for James Lee Witt and the Clinton administration [and] what they did at FEMA has gone a little too far and has exceeded the reality. The fact is, I think they were pretty good at recovery operations, providing the assistance that the state and local agencies requested reasonably quickly after the request came in.
But under the Clinton administration and James Lee Witt, FEMA was never the sort of titan of executive-branch effectiveness and efficiency striding in with all sorts of capability and assets. It's just not the way it was. It remained a quite reactive agency, and if you ever talk to FEMA officials about this, the first question about how they're doing in a disaster response is usually, "Have we met all the requests that have come in?" And that's just how it is. And for people in this business, it's not much of a surprise, because that's the essence of our federal compact. The federal role in disaster management and response is one of assisting state and local authorities.
Even when state and local authorities have been completely overwhelmed?
That doesn't happen very often, and when it does happen, then clearly the federal government ends up bearing ultimate responsibility. And that's exactly what we saw in Katrina.
And that's where the model falls apart?
Yeah. And by the way, that never happened under Clinton. It happened in Hurricane Andrew, 1992, at the end of the first Bush administration. But for the duration of the Clinton administration, state and local authorities were never overwhelmed to the point that we saw in New Orleans after Katrina.
I've been out to talk to some of the people on the ground who deal with emergency planning in various parishes in Louisiana, in various counties in Florida, and they tell a different tale of high morale during the Witt years at FEMA, and that mitigation is something you haven't mentioned being very much a project of Witt's.
Mitigation is proactive. You're just questioning, then, the extent to which their mitigation efforts really took the bull by the horns?
No. Mitigation is a little bit different. Mitigation is going out and trying to understand the underlying risks in the community and to take action in advance of a disaster to reduce those risks. And that's right. James Lee Witt did call a lot of attention to that mission, did build it up in FEMA, when it never had existed before. And there was some modest progress made. It wasn't transformative, but they moved in that direction. I think that was good.
What I'm talking about is something rather different, and it's more of what the public expected of the federal government after the total collapse in New Orleans in Katrina, which is the ability to arrive very quickly en masse with massive federal assets so that you can re-establish public order and basic services in a domestic disaster. That's what I'm talking about in forward-leaning, proactive response.
And the U.S. government is not currently designed to do that, [and] did it very badly the one time it's been called upon to do with Katrina.
Clearly that's the heart of the outrage, that after all this time, we still don't have adequate communication systems; we don't have evacuation plans.
That's absolutely right. I am personally in favor of an enhanced federal capacity to respond in force with real assets very quickly in mass-casualty calamities, like with Katrina, and what we could have if there was a terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction.
In some way, I think we learned from the last disaster, and for us, the last terrorist disaster was 9/11. 9/11 was devastating, but it was highly localized, ... so we didn't have the same kind of demand for our response, and furthermore, the local agencies were pretty much able to handle it. They had some areas where they asked for federal assistance and received it, but they were in charge. They were proud of the response and justly so, I think. Katrina was an entirely different experience.
But Andrew was similar in some ways. It, too, hit a populated area, like New Orleans.
Well, it did hit a populated area, but it was one that had been evacuated. There were only 27 casualties as the result of Andrew.
But there were a lot of people down there waiting days for a federal response. Why didn't the government learn more from Andrew?
It's a good question -- and this is a question that was really answered by the Clinton administration and James Lee Witt. George H.W. Bush left office shortly after Andrew. …
In part it's [because] these things don't happen very often. You know, they happen once a decade when you have a disaster this bad, this big. In part, it requires a rethinking of the basic federal compact, which is that the state and local agencies are responsible for disaster relief and management, and the federal government is just there to help as asked. And it's not very often that the state and local agencies are just completely supine and unable to respond at all and look to the federal government to take over entirely.
But that's the very scenario that people have been told to expect in a post-9/11 world.
Some people have been told that, and I'm very worried about it. And we are not ready to deal with that at this time.
That seems outrageous. We've had four years since 9/11 to get mobile communications, equipment --
Communications is going be a separate matter, which we'll talk about in just a sec. But as I said, ... this need identified in Hurricanes Katrina and in Andrew was not exposed on 9/11. Another need was exposed on 9/11, but not the need to do massive, full-scale federal deployment.
You raised the issue of communications. Let's be very clear about communications. The federal government does not procure radios and communications for state and local agencies. It has handed out a lot of money. In my personal opinion, it has handed out that money with far too few conditions on how the state and local agencies spend it.
That is as they [state and local agencies] like it. They would rather not have those conditions, and the Congress does not want to impose a lot of conditions. ... And frankly, the administration hasn't really proposed it, because it's politically unpopular, which I regret. The fact is, there are many areas in the country that do not have fully interoperable and resilient communication systems, and it's despite the fact that they're getting money from the federal government, and it is basically because they are spending money on incompatible, nonresilient communication systems.
You would be in favor of standards being set by the federal government on how that money is spent?
With priorities being set? Goals being set?
I would be in favor of extremely strong conditions, and I would essentially refuse to provide any money to any state and local agency that was not spending on compatible, highly resilient communications systems for its response agencies. That's not currently the case.
What's the thinking in the White House today about setting these goals?
The thinking now is that there should be goals. There is a presidential directive that says there will be goals. The secretary of homeland security is assigned the responsibility for developing them. A draft has been released. And it's just this bureaucratic process that's taking a very long time. The presidential directive to do this was signed, I think, in early 2004.
How many cities in the country have interoperable communication systems that you're aware of?
I don't have an inventory of them.
I'm not sure anybody does.
How uncoordinated is this?
… You are asking agencies at the federal level who are basically not responsible for state and local procurement decisions. And state and local agencies who decide to buy a radio set that doesn't interoperate with some other radio set in their geographic area are under no obligation to report that fact to the federal government. That's federalism.
But there's no accountability. But there are things that need to be nationally coordinated.
What we're talking about here is rethinking the basic federal compact, and what I just outlined to you: the fact that state and local agencies have the authority, under the Constitution, to spend money as they wish on things they want to buy, and they are under no obligation to report that to the federal government. Sometimes they are not even under that obligation when they use federal monies to do it. They should be, but sometimes they can use their own taxpayers' money to buy it.
That's the essence of federalism. These state[s], they are sovereign entities in a way, and so you cannot hold any federal actor fully accountable for actions that happen at the state and local level. It's highly inconvenient. The founders did not design our government system to maximize the operational efficiency of our domestic security operation. That's just a fact. [They] designed it in some respects to maximize its inefficiency so that the government could not suppress the people.
But the heart of the problem lies, I think, in highly distributed responsibilities and highly distributed accountability, so that you can never point to a single person and say, "You are responsible for this failure when it involves multiple different layers of government and multiple different agencies." That, unfortunately, is federalism.
And there's one other point I want to make -- this outrage. And a more effective national response to catastrophic disasters is not the only thing the public has come to expect after 9/11. Most importantly, I think from the president, what they expect is that he will not sit by passively as threats develop, and that he will take action preventively against threats, and that he will prevent attacks against the country.
... And on the prevention side, the fact is, as of today, there's been no further attack on the American soil, no further terrorist attack, and the threat that existed on Sept. 10 has been largely eliminated. At least its sanctuary has been eliminated, and it has metastasized into new threats, but Al Qaeda as we knew it doesn't exist anymore. And so when you look at the president and the administration's record on how it's responded to 9/11 and how well it's secured the homeland since 9/11, you cannot just look at one single portion of his response. You have to look at the entirety of it.
And so I think it's appropriate for the American people to be critical that the federal government has not increased its domestic response capabilities as far as it should have since 9/11. I'm personally in favor of a more capable federal government in that respect, but there are also other parts of it that frankly have gotten more attention and where the successes have been greater.
In New Orleans, there was the failure to have adequate evacuation plans or pre-positioning buses and having evacuation routes worked out. The feeling in the country now is that there should be some kind of national standards set for cities so that we know that all our cities have workable evacuation plans.
Some people may feel that, but I think if you were to go to mayors of some big cities that actually had good plans and have exercised them and say, "We're going to condition all your federal money on meeting this checklist that a federal bureaucrat will provide to you," they would be offended by that. So I personally support this notion of federal standards enforced by strongly conditioned federal assistance.
Well, we have a president who is making schoolchildren take standardized tests all over the country, so school systems are under pressure everywhere to meet certain federal standards. Why would we not want federal standards for evacuating cities in the case of an emergency?
I personally support it. But ... when we do this, it's often politically controversial.
That's what the leadership is about.
As I said, I personally support it. But I urge you to interview some governors and mayors who feel good about their own cities' capabilities and would rather not spend their time filling out federal forms to get money which they regard as an entitlement.
I think following 9/11 that the federal government's attention to natural disasters basically held steady. I truly believe this. I know that's not the conventional wisdom. Everyone thinks that it fell off dramatically after 9/11. I personally didn't see that, didn't experience it.
We did have some natural disasters after 9/11. A lot of hurricanes hitting Florida, one even here -- Isabel [a Category 2 hurricane which made landfall in North Carolina in 2003]. We had the space shuttle crash [in February 2003]. We had the electricity outage in the Northeast [in August 2003]. And FEMA basically handled those fine, and there wasn't any huge problem.
But while the rather modest attention to disasters held steady post-9/11, I think there was a massive increase in the amount of attention to terrorism and terrorism protection and response.
The president has been criticized for appointing his campaign manager [Joe Allbaugh] as head of FEMA when he had no prior experience in disaster relief. Do you think that's a fair criticism?
I think the performance is what you have to evaluate. Lots of people can excel in jobs for which they don't have any particular experience. That happens from time to time. But I do think you have to look at their performance, and there's no question that people will look at the performance of Joe Allbaugh's successor, Mike Brown, and criticize him.
I do not think that Mike's shortcomings as director of FEMA as revealed in Katrina followed axiomatically from his resume and his lack of experience. I think it had more to do with how he conducted himself or the circumstance he was in [with] Katrina and the rest. In general there's a debate about the sort of people to give these big jobs to. Do you want professionals that have been in the business forever, or do you want people who are supportive of the president and close to the president? And you have to strike a balance.
Every administration has done that. It's just sort of how these jobs are doled out. In general, for security-type jobs and jobs relevant to homeland security, I usually favor the professionals, the people with a lot of experience.
It seems to devalue professionalism to argue anything else.
Well, political appointees can also be professionals as well.
As with Witt.
And Witt did fine.
And he had experience. I mean, to put people in there who don't have disaster relief experience seems nuts.
Look, I basically think too much attention here has been on the person of Mike Brown and some of the others that were appointed at the same time, and what we really need to look at is the system and how it performed.
Brown was not the only player in this system. There was a governor in Louisiana. There was a mayor in New Orleans. There was a Cabinet secretary that presided over [Brown]. There was very important White House staff who are the gatekeepers to the president. There was the president. So there were a lot of people, and their individual performance needs to be looked at.
I don't really want to engage in Washington's favorite blood sport: personal destruction of one person, Mike Brown, who had the unfortunate fate of being the director of FEMA when we faced the worst disaster in 13 years.
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