A former U.S. senator (R-N.H.), Warren Rudman has studied homeland security issues for more than a decade. He co-chaired the Hart/Rudman Commission, created in 1998 to evaluate and reassess U.S. national security policies. In its report, released in January 2001, the commission proposed the creation of a department of homeland security. After 9/11, he headed a Council of Foreign Relations task force that identified enormous gaps in communications and protection equipment for first responders in the event of a catastrophic attack on the U.S. In this interview, Rudman outlines his commission's proposal for a homeland security department and his dissatisfaction with the department as it currently exists. He also discusses what went wrong with FEMA, the lessons federal and local governments should take from Katrina and why he's a "realist" about how many Americans can be saved in a catastrophe. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 5, 2005.
What did Katrina tell us about what's not working in our system of preparedness?
If you have a major disaster involving hundreds of thousands, or in this case millions of people, whether it be a natural disaster or an act of terrorism, the first 72 hours are going to be totally chaotic no matter what you plan to do. If there were a major earthquake in Los Angeles, with bridges and highways and railroads and airports all shut down and huge buildings collapsing, I don't care how much planning you do, the first 72 hours is going to be chaotic.
And in Katrina, when you have a half million residences made either non-inhabitable or destroyed on the entire Gulf Coast, and you have that number of people affected, there's no way you're going to get a quick response.
For the American people to think that if something like this happens again, that somehow we're going to get everything done nicely in the first two or three days, it just doesn't happen. That's why we call them disasters.
But somebody's going to listen to that and say, "Oh, he doesn't think there was any bad performance on the part of the federal government or local or state government."
I think all of them could have done somewhat better. The two things that could have been better is number one, to get major military force into the community almost immediately to make sure that there was law and order. Number two, we had enough helicopters to airlift food into the centers of population and those places. We could have done that better. But beyond that, in the first couple of days, not a lot more. …
And let me just make one other point that we made in our commission report. [Editor's Note: The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, popularly known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, was a bipartisan Defense Department-chartered project that delivered in January 2001 its final report (PDF file) on how to strengthen America's security.] The president's very right about one thing: When you have a disaster of that scale, whether it be natural or a terrorist attack, there's only one part of our entire government, state or local, that is equipped to handle it, and that's the U.S. military. They have the command; they have the people; they have the discipline; they have the equipment; they have the transport; they have the communications. They have what it takes.
No civilian agency, including FEMA, can by itself handle this kind of a mess. They just don't have it. The 82nd Airborne can do it, and the 101st Airborne can do it. FEMA can't do it, not in the first few days. Impossible.
But FEMA is, in fact, a coordinating agency. It doesn't have real assets; they have phones. They are supposed to immediately go into action, call up the Pentagon and say, "This is what we need."
Yeah. I don't think it was handled very well in the first couple days. I think it started to get better after that. The other thing about FEMA, my understanding is that it was supposed to move into the Department of Homeland Security … and be what it was, but also having a lot of lateral communication with all those others involved in that issue of homeland security.
But I understand its budget was changed. Its mission to some extent was changed. Its authorities were changed. FEMA has done a pretty good job in a number of major disasters in this country, but this thing [Katrina] overwhelmed them for two reasons: one, because it was so huge, and number two, because they had been reorganized maybe in a way that made them less effective.
Were you aware of that process of downsizing FEMA when [former Director] Joe Allbaugh came in and announced that it was an entitlement program, that it had gotten a little bloated?
Yes. He might have been right in some of those things, but in some of the authorities that they took away and some of the people they lost, it probably was a mistake.
What do we chalk that up to? I mean, they go through a horrible experience with [Hurricane] Andrew, the agency goes through a lot of reform in the '90s, and then it seems to fall off the wagon again.
Well, it's like everything else in this country. We tend to pay attention to that which is the most current on our radar screen. I thought FEMA did a pretty good job through the '90s and did a fair job last year during the hurricane season down in Florida. But this was overwhelming.
Frankly, I think their leadership failed as well. I don't think the leadership was very good. I don't mean to criticize anybody personally, but I don't think Mr. [Michael] Brown had the kind of in-depth, long-term experience that, say, his predecessor had. James Lee Witt, who I think was an ideal person, had a lot of experience, and the agency acted very well under his leadership.
We had. And the Department of Homeland Security that we recommended in January of 2001 was so much smaller than the one that eventually evolved. It mainly had FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] functions and a few others. What the administration finally came up with after 9/11 was a much larger organization, maybe too large.
… Was the White House resistant to what you proposed back then?
Oh, they certainly were.
I don't know. It could well be the kind of turf protection that goes on within the governments. This is a brand-new administration, in office since Jan. 20. This proposal came out soon thereafter. But there was no support from the White House. In fact, the word went out: "We're not going to support this."
Then 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden emerging from the White House was a Department of Homeland Security, which generally followed the Hart-Rudman recommendations, but, as I said, was larger.
They decided to form a larger department than you had recommended.
It was a bad idea, because I think that any government reorganization has to come in relatively small bites, or else you get indigestion. And I think that's exactly what happened at DHS. And it's still happening. I think it's so big that both [Secretaries] Tom Ridge and Mike Chertoff, both very good people, are having a hard time getting their arms around the entire organization.
If you look at our original report -- and I don't have it right with me -- you will see that it was a much leaner organization. The key parts of it were FEMA, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But here you had a lot of other things that went in -- intelligence functions and all sorts of things -- which in my opinion didn't belong there. … And it's hard to coordinate anything that disparate.
And that's what I think we've seen to some extent. I don't think that's responsible for what happened in New Orleans. I just think that's why DHS is having a hard time getting itself on track.
Well, one might ask whether or not the burying of FEMA in a much larger department could have led to some of the lack of responsiveness.
Well, it turns out it probably did. But it didn't have to be that way. Our recommendation was that FEMA was a good organization that was properly organized. It needed strong leadership and ought to go in DHS as it was, with its functions and its budget preserved, but that it would start to have more lateral communication with people with similar interests.
We said the same thing about the Coast Guard. They went in under DHS. But they couldn't mess around with the Coast Guard. They're an old service with a great tradition, a lot of supporters on the Hill. And so the Coast Guard went in with great leadership, pretty good equipment, pretty good budget, good training, good discipline, good logistics, good infrastructure, and they did a good job.
FEMA didn't do a good job, at least in the beginning. Why? I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it's my understanding that they were kind of, in some ways, changed as they became part of DHS.
Anybody wants to read our report carefully, that's not what we recommended. We thought they would be a major block of DHS. It turns out they may not have been. And I'm sure the Hill will look at that. But if anyone wants to take them out and make them independent and think that's going to fix anything, that won't fix anything. They can be as effective as they are where they are with the right leadership, the right budget, the right organization.
You know, rearranging the deck chairs in the Titanic wouldn't have saved any lives. I know that Sen. [Hillary] Clinton and others have said we've got to pull it out and make it independent. Well, let's sit back a while and look at it closely and see, what was it before it went in? What is it now? And how do we restore it to what it was and leave it where it is?
So at least you shared the same impulse that somehow FEMA has to be made more key.
Absolutely. And my sense is that they felt that they had been in many ways kind of pushed down and reorganized a bit. Some of their missions changed. …
[President Clinton's national coordinator for counterterrorism] Richard Clarke, in his book, describes DHS as a behemoth and an object of ridicule. You share his view?
Not totally. If he's saying by that comment that it's too large, I agree with him on that, but --
That's what he's saying. He's saying that basically, when the Department of Transportation was reorganized, the Department of Energy was reorganized, it took many, many years for these various agencies coming together to meld.
Well, that's true. But let me point out that before DHS, the responsibility for reacting to terrorism was in 58 different places in the government, and that wasn't good either. … I believe smaller would have been better than bigger in this case. Why? Because smaller is easier to manage. Could always add on to it. But there just was so much that was taken in so quickly.
There's two practical things we saw failing on the ground in New Orleans: One, there seemed to be a failure to properly evacuate the city; and two, communications failed. Did it surprise you that these were the problems?
Oh, it doesn't surprise me. I can talk a lot about the interoperability. I've been talking about that since 2001, and not only originally with a commission, but in both of our reports, the one I did with [former Democratic Sen.] Gary Hart, the one I did with Dick Clarke. One of the things we stress is, you've got to get interoperability and communications, or else you're going to have disaster no matter what goes on. Still don't have it. And the amount of money that it would cost to do that is not a huge amount of money.
The other thing I'd been very concerned about is the way DHS has been parceling out money. Even Tom Ridge agrees it's not done the right way. It shouldn't be done on a population per capita basis. It ought to be done on a threat basis and --
And risk assessment.
Absolutely. I live in a little town called Hollis, N.H. We don't need a SWAT team. We don't have one, but I don't think we ought to get one. Washington, D.C., has a much greater risk than Manchester, N.H. They both need some level of funding, but they ought not to be done per capita. Congress is to blame for some of this.
It's been seen as an entitlement program.
Absolutely. And it shouldn't be an entitlement program. Should be a risk-based grant program in which those at the greatest risk get the greatest number of sums of money.
And coming back to New Orleans and transportation, in the first instance, that's a community responsibility. That's not a federal responsibility. I don't know enough about what their plans were. I understand they had them. They weren't implemented. But certainly, the mayor and the governor bear some responsibility for this, and I think they would say that themselves.
Well, sure, they bear responsibility for it. But if there is a Department of Homeland Security giving out grants, wouldn't it be useful for the department to say, "OK, we think you need better evacuation plans," to all the cities in America and give grants based on some kind of standard?
I absolutely agree. I testified up on the Hill that what we ought to be doing is setting standards, minimum standards for all of these issues, and then fund to those standards. That's yet to be done.
Don't know -- politics of this being an entitlement program, all this money sloshing around. The Washington Post did a piece a couple of years ago on how this money has been just spent for absurd things -- people buying all kinds of mobile vans and whatnot, and boats to patrol rivers, and all the toys that people in law enforcement like to enjoy.
There are no standards, as far as you understand it, for interoperability? When the money is given out by the Department of Homeland Security, there is no system by which they say, "You can have this money specifically for communications, and we expect you to meet such-and-such a standard by such-and-such a date"?
Last time I checked, the answer was no. If they changed that, then they ought to tell you about that. I've told people who are involved, particularly on the Hill, who consulted my advice, that I think it's absolutely intolerable. You've got to have police, fire, other first respondents being able to have a mode to talk to each other. Can't do that, can't get anything done -- I don't care how much equipment you have.
And so, again, who's to blame?
Well, I think the whole government's to blame. Congress is to blame; the administration's to blame.
But whenever everybody's to blame, nothing gets done.
Yeah. That's just the way it is. I think if there had been strong leadership either in the Congress or in the administration or at DHS to say, "This is something we have to get done," it probably would get done.
But nobody seems to be very agitated about it. You know, government disappoints me sometimes, and this is one of the times it disappoints me. And yet playing a blame game isn't entirely the thing to do. I'd rather look forward and find a way to do it.
And so what are we supposed to believe about what DHS has been doing for four years?
Well, they've done a great deal, actually. They've done a lot of training. They have given out some money in some good places. FEMA and the Coast Guard have done a great deal in many areas. The Coast Guard's done a great job in improving port security, which is a major problem.
But a lot hasn't been done. I don't think there's been a crisis attitude about it, and that's not all the government's fault. We as Americans tend to get very upset about something, and then the greater the time that passes, the less our concern. The time to do things is when the concern level of the American public is high.
One answer that I heard over and over again from former, recent officials of DHS was that in our federal system, it's the responsibility of localities to do as they see fit. They're on the ground; they should do what they think is right for their area, and that it would be -- and this was the word used -- "Orwellian" for us to impose standards.
Well, that's baloney. We impose standards on airports, on interstate highways, on bridges. We impose standards on harbors. We impose standards on almost everything. And the federal government, if it's going to give out money, has a right to demand standards. Somebody's saying they can't impose standards for interoperability of radio equipment? I just don't buy into that. We're coming from a different planet. If they [the states] are going to use federal money for it, we've got a right to tell them what the standards are to use that money for. We do that in education, No Child Left Behind. We do it all the time.
Dick Clarke told me of states spending the money on bulletproof vests for dogs, air-conditioned garbage trucks. You came across these kinds of things in your study?
A fair amount. You'd have to go through all the grants, which are all public, but I've seen a fair amount of that. … There has been a lot of waste of Homeland Security grants, because the Congress in my view has not exercised the kind of oversight and put in the kind of standards and minimum requirements and categorization of what the money can go for, and that really has to change.
Do you think this president has really made homeland security and preparedness a priority, in your view?
… Has it been the president's top priority? Probably not. I would think most Americans asked that question would tell you the president's top priority for the last two years was what he called the war of terrorism, which he referred then to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that's how I would assess it politically. …
I thought the war on terror involved preparedness at home.
It certainly does, but that's not the way I view it in terms of political imperatives. You can't at the same time focus the American people's attention on preparedness and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and all wrap it up. It gets too confusing, and if you look at the amount of television time -- and that tends to set the agenda in this country -- and the major news programs, you'll find that the majority of it in the last couple of years has been Afghanistan, Iraq and some on homeland security, but not a lot.
When the Department of Homeland Security was formed, they said that it was going to be "revenue-neutral." Those are the words they used. In other words, they weren't going to give any extra money. They were going to put 22 agencies together --
And take their combined budgets and pool them, yeah. Obviously some of them needed more money, and one of the areas that needed more money was the grant program and DHS, had it been linked in with standards. …
I have testified about this on the Hill on numerous occasions with a lot of examples as to why standards were necessary, not just for radios, but for anything. If you want to go out and buy certain kinds of equipment, it has to meet certain standards, or else you can get a lot of shoddy equipment out there. You're going to get all kinds of wheeling and dealing going on, America being the kind of place it is, depending on where you're dealing.
So you believe there's a lot more that we could be doing.
A great deal more that we can do, a lot that we can do to save people, to respond better, to make sure people are equipped better. But there's a certain tipping point where if you have a mass disaster, either dirty or real nuclear weapon or a biological weapon or a huge disaster like Katrina, it's like a football team that practiced for weeks to play against a certain kind of a team, and then the team they meet in the field that day doesn't resemble what they practiced for at all.
And so you've got to win on a broken play.
That's exactly right.
Did you study what you would have to do, or what a city would look like, if it had the surge capacity to evacuate --
We looked at it, and the other thing we looked at was surge capacity of public hospitals, which is another enormous problem. Go talk to the American Hospital Association. We talked to them at length for our second or third report about surge capacity. It's virtually impossible to get surge capacity.
With all the financial requirements hospitals have now to keep their head above water, how do they start investing money in surge capacity? They're trying to in some of the metropolitan areas. You know, 9/11 was very interesting, because you had a lot of people, but very few people injured. Big difference. The ratio to killed and injured is usually very high, a lot of injured [compared] to fewer that are fatalities. New York, 9/11 was totally different. Most situations are totally different. We don't have that kind of surge capacity.
I participated in an event over in Fairfax County, [Va.,] here about a year ago, and there were people there from the hospitals, and they all said: "Hey, if something really bad happens here, we don't have the surge capacity. We don't have a place to put people, to decontaminate people, to get the right staff in."
This may sound trite, but bad things happen to good people, and when you're facing terrorism, natural disaster, you can have every wonderful plan in place, but I am a realist. Those are the realities. Anybody who tells you differently has not looked at this program or is, as we say in New Hampshire, whistling in the cemetery.
To summarize, you think we should spend money.
We should spend more money on getting prepared for prevention and for protection. There's more we can do with communications, with equipment, with the right kind of response, the right kind of training. Make sure that chem-bio teams are equipped in all the major cities with everything they need. And if you do all you can, that's all you can ever do.
This country's rich enough to do all that is physically possible to get ready for this kind of a situation. I believe that very firmly, and we have an obligation to do that. I don't think we've done that yet, and I've made no secret of my criticism. I've published two reports saying exactly that.
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