The Journal Editorial Report | September 9, 2005 | PBS
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Lead Story
September 9, 2005

The President at a Crossroads
Keoka Lewis holds her 1-year-old son, Zwon
Keoka Lewis holds her 1-year-old son, Zwon. Both from New Orleans, they are sitting on their cot under the roof of the Astrodome in Houston, September 8, 2005. (AP/David Zalubowski)

The contrast could not be more clear: the president's strong leadership almost four years ago after 9/11, and his uncertain performance last week after the devastation of the Gulf Coast. Add that perception to the widespread unhappiness over Iraq, and you have a president weakened at a time of great challenges: the need to rebuild huge and critical parts of Louisiana and Mississippi; the war on terrorism and the reconstruction of Iraq; a second vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court; and a domestic agenda thrown off target, first by opposition in both parties to Social Security reform and now by a hurricane.

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Ironically, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, the obvious failure of the Department of Homeland Security in its first big test leaves a lot of people wondering whether we are really better off -- any safer from terrorism and any better prepared to deal with disaster.

President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. It was the biggest transformation of the government in 50 years, folding 22 departments into one new super agency. The DHS web site states it is there to lead the unified effort to secure America, and to insure that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation and mount a swift and effective recovery effort.

DHS was 30 months old before it was put to its first big test, Hurricane Katrina. By most accounts, it failed.

Congressional investigations are scheduled to begin next week, but the DHS response to the hurricane already is being called a devastating indictment.

President Bush, in creating the DHS, declared its central mission to be all hazards preparedness, on the theory that all disaster preparation is the same, whether natural or man-made. But the DHS focused on terrorism, keeping America safe. Their report card to date is mixed at best. They have been criticized for spending too much effort on over-zealous airport security, and alarming or ambiguous national threat advisories, and not paying enough attention to larger dangers such as protecting U.S. courts and cargo, the most likely entry points for nuclear or biological weapons.

Since the 1970s, it had been the responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to deal with natural disasters. After an imperfect start, FEMA had performed well and had been given cabinet-level status. Then, under the Bush DHS plan, it was absorbed into the DHS bureaucracy along with other agencies, such as the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the Transportation Security Agency, relegated to a subordinate role.

By most accounts, dismantling FEMA has been a mistake. One FEMA official fumed this week, "We have less capability today than we did on September 11th. We lost what we were able to do." There have been demands for the president to fire the DHS secretary, Michael Chertoff, and/or FEMA head, Michael Brown. The president refused.

Two and a half years, 180,000 employees, and a $40 billion annual budget later, the Department of Homeland Security looks like a bureaucratic catastrophe. Critics now ask, "What might have happened had Katrina been a terrorist nuclear or biological attack? Katrina gave a three-day warning, terrorists do not."

PAUL GIGOT: Kim, we at the JOURNAL said all along that creating this Department of Homeland Security was probably a mistake. Why did it fail its first big test here?

KIM STRASSEL: I think this is a question of whether or not bureaucracy, this huge bureaucracy that we created, is actually getting in the way of us effectively responding to disasters, whether it be terrorism or otherwise. When you look down at what is happening in Katrina, we are discovering that one of the reasons this happened is the lack of a national response plan. The way the disasters have always been handled in the past, state and local officials took care of things for the first three days, and then the feds came in to help out. But what happens when the local officials and state officials are so swamped that they actually can not deal with things on their own? Now this is not a question no one had thought of. There has been a lot of discussion about it. But because of the way the things were set up at the Department of Homeland Security, it never got put into effect.

Department of Homeland Security
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GIGOT: One of the things we know about bureaucracies, though, is if you point it in one direction it can usually move in that direction single-mindedly. In the Department of Homeland Security, the focus was terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. Did that mean that some of these other priorities, like disaster relief, got dwarfed?

STRASSEL: I think that's certainly a question. FEMA, when DHS was created, was subsumed into this larger department called Emergency Preparedness and Response. Suddenly that department had to fight with every other department to get funding. Now, when you have a whole sort of operation that's geared toward terrorism, if you're FEMA and you go and say, look, I'd really like to spend all my preparation money on rebuilding the levies down in New Orleans, when everyone else is talking about terrorism, are you just going to get laughed out of the building?

GIGOT: Homeland Security was created in the 2002 election season. Nobody had given it a heck of a lot of thought other than that it made the government look like it was doing something, Dan.

DAN HENNINGER: It was a hydra-headed creation. It was an assemblage of 12 different agencies into one bureaucracy, and you don't just snap your fingers and expect it all to perform. It took the Department of Defense at least 10 years after its creation to start functioning at all. Now, speaking of the Department Defense, it has been behaving very well down in New Orleans. I talked to Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale this week, and he described New Orleans as the operational equivalent of a WMD attack.

Now, in June this year, the Defense Department put out something called "A Strategy for Homeland Defense," and it describes the way they would respond to a WMD attack, or a catastrophe of this magnitude. I think one of the reasons they are constructing this strategy is their concern that the domestic bureaucracies are indeed moving too slowly and not getting to the point where they are capable of responding to a real event. The Pentagon's concern is that there could be a serious WMD event. But their capacity, their assets are able to respond to something like Katrina.

STRASSEL: One of the problems here, too, is that the way DHS was set up, there has been so much focus on preparation and all of these state and local governors saw this as an opportunity to get a lot of money for their own states, their own fire departments, their own first responders. While everyone was talking about how we needed some sort of capacity to deal with a situation like that, nobody was willing to give us their little bit of money to put together a plan like this.

STEPHEN MOORE: It became the Department of Pork, not the Department of Homeland Security. I would follow up on one point that Kim made earlier, and just correct one word that you said. When you said that state and local officials were swamped, I would make the case that they were just completely incompetent, for all the faults of the way that the national government has dealt with this crisis. Look at the complete failure of the local government in New Orleans and the state government. After all, the first responders should be the state National Guard, which are run by the state. They were asleep at the switch. One of my big frustrations in response to all of this is, we have seen a failure at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level. What is the response? Spend $50 to 100 billion more money on these very agencies that have been so incompetent.

New Orleans
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GIGOT: We want to get to that. But let's take this question of the tension between the local and state governments on the one hand, who are the first responders under law, and the federal response, which is supposed to respond to the request from the state, particularly when it comes to the Pentagon. Do we need to rethink some of the ways we are doing this? Or really even re-think our laws?

HENNINGER: We may have to re-think some of the laws. One in particular is the so-called Insurrection Act, which allows the president to decide that there is a state of insurrection, however he defines it around the country, and deploy troops. Now, the last time that was used was when President John Kennedy used it against Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. Interestingly, at that time, Wallace was using the National Guard to enforce his own ban on blacks entering the University of Alabama. J.F.K. told those national guardsmen to turn around and point their guns in the other direction. Now that's simply sweeping a governor's authority aside, which is an unprecedented act.

You are asking here whether George Bush should have done the same thing to Governor Blanco in Louisiana, and that came up in the past weekend. He asked her whether he should invoke the Insurrection Act and she resisted, saying she would go with the National Guard.

GIGOT: Do you think he might have resisted, in part, because of all the criticism the federal government has received in trying to be aggressive on anti-terrorism policy, on Guantanamo, on the Patriot Act -- that they may have gone too far and this time they were just too timid?

HENNINGER: But the status quo is that the state governors, they are the sovereign authority under these circumstances. The law requires them to request the federal government to come in. If that is not working so well, then we have to address that relationship between the states and the federal government.


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