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THE STORM [home page]
richard clarke

A member of the White House National Security Council in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations (1992-2003), Clarke's career has long focused on issues of security and infrastructure protection. Here, he discusses some of the context for understanding what went wrong in government's response to Katrina. In particular, he talks about the ramificiations of bringing FEMA into the huge super agency of the Dept. of Homeland Security, and the political and technological problems that still, four years after 9/11, have prevented cities and municipal government from having reliable communication systems and ones in which first responders can talk to each other. In summing up the Katrina disaster, Clarke calls it a "failure of leadership at every level" and a wake-up call on how ill-prepared the country is for another disaster in waiting. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 27, 2005.

... The hurricane hits, communications go down. What are the lessons here?

Well, I think the lessons are that the normal telecommunications system in a city, in a metropolitan area, can't withstand a disaster of this magnitude. And I distinguish between a disaster of the magnitude of the hurricane that we have every year and this kind of disaster, which is more of a calamity. It's something beyond a disaster. Our telecommunications system, cell phones, the landlines, are not designed to withstand certain levels of attack, either by terrorists or by nature.

But we've had now four years since 9/11, where communications went down, and we discovered through various investigations how dire the situation [was], with people and police and fire departments not being able to talk to one another. What has gone on in this four-year period to improve communication?

There were two things that we tried to do immediately after 9/11. The first was to allow emergency responders to use cell phones. The reason they couldn't use cell phones on 9/11 was that everyone was trying to use cell phones, and therefore they couldn't get through.

So we tried to change the rules so that emergency responders' telephones would bump other telephone calls and have priority getting through. And that was put in place in Washington, D.C.; it was put in place in New York. And it was supposed to be spread out nationwide, but the program stalled after the first few cities were done.


Many of the phone companies don't like the idea. Verizon in particular has resisted the program for a variety of reasons that they know best. They're afraid I think of being sued by customers who can't get through. Most customers I think would rather have the fire and police get through in an emergency before they place their own call.

So this is a tension that's gone on out of view of the public, that Verizon has resisted, other companies have resisted, presumably.

Some companies have been very cooperative, and in some cities, as a result of three or four carriers being cooperative, you can get through if you're a policeman or a fireman with a cell phone. ...

It seems quite incredible, but apparently FEMA really didn't know what was going on in the city.

The other thing that we tried to do after 9/11 was to get emergency responders in a metropolitan area all working on the same frequency. And the problem that we quickly ran into was that different departments in different jurisdictions had radio sets that were physically unable to talk to each other because of the chips that were in them, number one.

Number two, the available radio spectrum was assigned to television stations, cab drivers, railroads, people who really didn't need them anymore. Television stations were assigned two channels each, one for regular TV and one for high-definition, so a lot of the spectrum was being sucked up. Railroads that are now using fiber-optic cable for communication nonetheless still had radio spectrum. Taxi drivers, who use cell phones now, still had radio spectrum. And only the federal government through the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] can reassign radio spectrum. And it's very, very difficult to do that because of the vested interests. ...

But to get everybody on the same channel, doesn't that mean that they all come to the same part of the spectrum?

It does. And one city at least that I know has been able to do this. ... The city of Baltimore and the six surrounding jurisdictions, the six surrounding counties, reached agreement on one frequency that they would use in an emergency for all fire departments, all police departments, all ambulances in the city and the six surrounding jurisdictions.

They then went out and bought radios that could do that. And so in the Baltimore metropolitan area, if there's an emergency, there can be one command post, and they can bring in fire and police from the suburbs into the city and all be able to talk to each other. Baltimore did it, but almost no other city did.

The effort to get others cities in the same shape as Baltimore just sort of faded?

No. What happened was the Congress decided that they would give what little money they appropriated to cities through the state governments, and that the state governments and the cities could decide how they wanted to spend the money for homeland security. Congress never said, "You first have to get your radios to talk to each other, and then after you've spent the money on that, then you can spend it on your pet projects." There was no requirement that these things had to be done first.

As a result, we have cities that bought bulletproof vests for canine patrols, so that we have dogs with bulletproof vests. We have cities that bought air-conditioned garbage trucks with homeland security money without ever solving their communications problems. ...

Does this have an impact on what happened in Louisiana? As I understand it, all the cell phone towers went down, so cell phone communication wouldn't have worked anyway.

Cell phone communications went down after a while in New Orleans because the battery systems went out. They could no longer get electric power from the grid, and the batteries only last a certain amount of time, and with the high winds of the hurricane, many of the towers blew over in any event.

But the telephone companies have large trucks which are called COWs [Cells on Wheels] or COLTs [Cells on Light Trucks], which [they] have in the hundreds, and they can roll in rapidly into an emergency area and pop up from the trucksf temporary cell phone towers, so that the idea was you could re-establish a cell phone network within a matter of hours. On 9/11, we ran COLTs and COWs into the Pentagon area that afternoon, so we had re-established cell phone towers, established new ones surrounding the Pentagon area within hours of the attack.

In New Orleans, was there any attempt to distribute these trucks?

Apparently the trucks couldn't get into the city because of the floods, and there was no pre-positioning of the trucks in the city or the metropolitan area. ...

So communications could have been established in New Orleans.

Some cell phone network could have been established in New Orleans, and if the telephone companies in that region had implemented the emergency responder telephone system, then fire and police could have had priority use on those cell phones.

What about the fact that there was also a communications lag between Washington and what was going on in the ground?

It seems quite incredible, but apparently FEMA really didn't know what was going on in the city. When normal civilian communications went down, FEMA, which has its own emergency communication system -- large trucks with satellite dishes, all of that -- they weren't there. ... The communication systems were not there, so FEMA couldn't communicate back to Washington.

But more importantly, FEMA never sent reconnaissance units into the devastated area, so they never really knew the extent of the disaster and apparently didn't even know things like where refugee centers had been established. ...

So they weren't even watching television?

... There were undoubtedly people at FEMA headquarters who were watching CNN and the other cable channels, but they apparently were not successful in reporting up to the FEMA director [Michael Brown] what the FEMA command center in Washington was seeing on television.

When you were in a position to study these things, didn't you drill these kinds of situations?

FEMA drills them, exercises them, all the time. The National Security Council, when I was in the White House, exercised them all the time, not in terms of hurricanes but in terms of terrorist attacks, including nuclear attacks, chemical attacks, biological attacks.

You learn a great deal from these exercises. You learn, "Wait a minute -- what does the law say about that?," or, "Wait a minute -- where are those assets? Why can't I communicate? Back up the game. Now let's play it again. What if I had made this decision earlier? How would things change?" You learn from these exercises. The professional emergency responders in FEMA and elsewhere do this all the time.

Well, had we then been victims of a terrorist attack in New Orleans, would we have been faster on our feet given that we drill those kinds of things?

Probably. When there's a terrorist attack in the United States, the first agency in charge is the FBI, and the FBI is more used to setting up command-and-control systems, putting in reconnaissance teams, establishing communications with local authorities. But I think the key here was that senior levels in the government hadn't been trained. The professionals train all the time, but exercises at the Cabinet level and the deputy secretary level are very rare.

You had something ongoing called Operation TOPOFF, where you had three of these exercises.

Yeah. The Congress mandated something called Operation TOPOFF, which was to have every two years a series of exercises, not just paper exercises but actually in the field involving units and involving simulated victims. They were, compared to any real attack, relatively small, involving hundreds of simulated victims. And in any real attack of the magnitude of the nuclear attack, you'd have tens of thousands of victims.

But they did involve getting top officials involved -- that's what TOPOFF refers to?

They involve top officials.

So why didn't it prepare top officials to respond more quickly to Hurricane Katrina, for instance?

It's all top officials in the state and local areas where the exercises took place, and they involved some officials in Washington briefly. They never really engaged the president or his Cabinet in a prolonged exercise.

So there [was] insufficient training for top-level officials in the government is what you're saying.

I think there's always been in every administration I've been in, which is about seven. There has always been a lack of training at the Cabinet level and immediately below it.

And that's what we saw going wrong in Katrina?

That's one of the things we saw going wrong in Katrina. We saw, I think, a breakdown at every level of government.

Right. But on the federal level, the slowness of the response was due, in your view, to lack of training?

I think it was due to lack of training and to a lack of communications, and a lack of appreciation that there is a golden hour or perhaps even a golden 24 hours after a disaster in which you can save lives, but after that one hour or 24 hours it's much more difficult, and many people have died. So this puts a premium on advancing units to the area before the disaster hits, and it puts a very big premium on getting in very rapidly after the disaster.

What about evacuation? What can you tell us about the preparedness to evacuate major cities?

The United States had a very elaborate city evacuation plan for every city in the country in the 1950s. When we thought the Russians might attack with nuclear weapons, every city in the country had an evacuation plan, and the routes were clearly laid out. There were signs in every city, civil defense symbols with an arrow and the words "Evacuation Route."

All of that stopped somehow in the late 1960s and 1970s. The signs fell down or were taken down; the exercises were stopped; the training of local police stopped, except in places like Florida and some coastal areas in the Carolinas and in the Gulf, where you still see evacuation signs. But for most cities, there's no evacuation plan.

On 9/11, Washington self-evacuated before anybody thought of saying that the city should be evacuated. Everyone began to evacuate themselves, and there was no plan, and the city gridlocked for hours. The subway was full. All the highways were full, and it took five and six and seven hours to go five miles.

Is it possible to really evacuate a major metropolitan area in an orderly fashion?

No, it's not possible to evacuate a major metropolitan area in an orderly fashion, but you can do better than [we've done]. ... What we see over and over again is the local authorities fail to order both sides of major highways to be used for evacuation, and so we get out half as many people as we could within a given time frame. This happened in a hurricane in the Carolinas a few years ago; it happened in Houston with Hurricane Rita -- that it takes the local authorities hours to realize that half of the highway is not being used, and so 50 percent of the people that could be getting out are not getting out.

There are no plans in most cities for rushing gasoline to the stations along the evacuation routes, because cars in the backup will run out of gasoline and stall and make the evacuation that much more difficult. But you can have gasoline trucks at the gas stations; you can have tow trucks stationed along the roads; you can have medical teams stationed along the roads. And you can turn all the traffic lights in one direction; you can turn all the lanes on interstates in one direction. All of that helps.

You can also plan to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes, and you can have ambulances that know when an evacuation is declared [that] that's their job. You can have buses that know when an evacuation order comes, if they're in the middle of their route, they go to the hospital and start moving people out on the buses. All of that can be done.

You can have an alert system, a siren system, a pager system so that instantly you can say, "We're evacuating the city," and people will know what to do. Police will know to stand and direct traffic in certain locations, to turn highways the other way. The only way that happens is by having a detailed plan and drilling it and exercising it with the real people who have to do the job. And no city in the United States is doing that.

Over the last month, there's been a lot of tension between the feds and the local officials, state and city officials. State and city officials say they were overwhelmed; they needed federal help; they didn't get it in time. The federal officials say a lot of it is preparedness and pre-positioning; that is a job that falls to the local officials.

Well, both are true, but I think the difference between a normal disaster and a calamity is what we're dealing with here. State and local officials cannot deal with a calamity such as happened in New Orleans or such as would happen if a small nuclear device went off in any American city. ...

So if we know from various exercises and from events like we've seen in the recent past, why aren't cities better prepared for a disaster or a calamity?

I think most cities are prepared for disaster. Most cities can handle a typical flood, a typical hurricane. Many cities in California can handle a mild or even a major earthquake. But if we get what Californians call "The Big One" in California -- an earthquake that devastates the Bay Area, for example, or devastates Los Angeles -- you cannot expect a city or a metropolitan area or even a state government to be able to respond to that level of devastation.

But we could expect cities along the Gulf Coast or in the Carolinas or Florida to have orderly evacuation plans, to be able to pre-position emergency equipment given that they have at least two days' warning, if not three or four. So why aren't they doing a better job of preparedness?

Some of them are. Some cities, particularly after recent experiences in the last three or four years, have put new evacuation plans into effect in the Carolinas and in Florida. And then frankly, we've seen fairly successful evacuations in the Florida Keys almost every year. ...

When you were in the NSC, were you concerned about storms or natural disasters?

The division of labor was that FEMA worried about national disasters and the White House national security apparatus working with FEMA worried about terrorist attacks, nuclear attacks, chemical and biological attacks.

That puts FEMA in a difficult position, because they have to be prepared to serve in two instances in very different kinds of situations in many cases.

No, they're not that different. FEMA has something called a National Response Plan, and there are chapters or variations in the National Response Plan for earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

Let's talk about when it was that after 2001, and there's a push to do something about national preparedness, and there's a debate over whether or not we need an office or a department [of homeland security], and this has an impact on FEMA.

The Bush White House very much opposed the idea of there being any new organization, let alone a whole new department, with homeland security. There was unanimity among the White House staff, including the president and the chief of staff, Andy Card, that this was a bad idea.

We didn't like the idea of reorganizing the troops during the war, and we thought, this was a war on terrorism -- very bad time to start reorganizing, because reorganization is disruptive for some period of time. We knew historically from the creation of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and especially the Department of Energy that it takes decades for these departments to gel as new organizations. ... They were much smaller. The White House opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. ...

What was the thinking [in opposing the formation of the Department of Homeland Security], and why?

The thinking was if we took the Lieberman bill [proposing the creation of a Department of Homeland Security], we'd be taking about 20 organizations from five different Cabinet departments, ripping them out of those departments and trying to glue them all back together in a new organization. We know bureaucracy; we know bureaucrats. Given that kind of reorganization, they're going to drop other things that they're doing and worry about: Where is their office? Who do they report to? What's their new budget? They're going to worry about the new organizational structure to the detriment of their doing their actual substantive job. And at a time when we could have been hit by further terrorist attacks, it made no sense to us to have the people who should be preparing and organizing and improving our security diverted into some bureaucratic game of reorganization. ...

[Former head of Homeland Security Tom] Ridge was in the White House trying to pull together an Office of Homeland Security?

Right. That was the solution that we all thought made sense: Have all of the existing departments stay where they were, but have a strong coordinator in the White House. And the president had picked the governor of Pennsylvania to be that strong coordinator from the White House, who could tell the departments what to do and pull together a coordinated program across departments. That solution has worked in the past on other issues, and it could have worked here. ...

The president gave in because?

The president gave in because he was told, correctly, that there was such support for the Lieberman bill creating a department in both the House and the Senate -- Republican support as well as Democrat support -- that the bill was going to pass. And if we continued to oppose it, the only thing the president could do would be to veto a bill after 9/11 creating a new homeland security department. They didn't want to do that.

That would have been politically disastrous?

Political suicide.

But yet the thing that he is most focused on, that he has staked his presidency on, is homeland security. And he's making a move that he knows himself is going to hamper our ability as a nation to respond to disasters.

But you have to understand, though, that the administration had a theory that the best way to deal with the terrorist threat was to go after the terrorists overseas. And this manifests itself with the president repeating the mantra: "We want to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here." So they've spent much more money in Afghanistan and Iraq than they have spent here on homeland security. ...

But the perception was, certainly during the 2004 election, that the government, if it was doing nothing else, was doing everything it could to make sure we were prepared at home. Is that false?

Entirely false. If we were serious about reducing our vulnerabilities here at home, we would have to spend a great deal more money than this administration is willing to spend. ... The administration didn't want to spend a lot of money on domestic security programs. It didn't want to spend money in blue states. It didn't want to increase the size of the federal bureaucracy. It would rather use the military and fight the terrorists overseas. That was the first priority. Homeland security was a much less second priority.

Was there an active debate inside the White House over whether or not that was the right approach?

There was a debate once the Homeland Security Office was created. That office advocated for much higher levels of spending than the White House ultimately agreed to do. ...

Will we, in time, have an effective Department of Homeland Security? Will we have a more effective homeland defense?

You could do a lot better than we're doing. You could, for example, have specific goals about reducing specific vulnerabilities, specific goals about creating specific capabilities. And say, five years from now, every major metropolitan area will have emergency communications that will interoperate with fire and police across the suburbs and the state. That's a goal. We do not have that goal.

You could say that in every major metropolitan area we ought to be able to handle a chemical attack where there are 10,000 victims. We don't have that goal. You could say that we want to have a goal that we want to inspect 20 percent of all shipping containers entering the United States five years from now. We don't have that goal.

There are no specific goals, no specific requirements and no plan to get from here to there, that we could then say how much that would cost. The amount of money the administration decides every year to spend on reducing our vulnerabilities here at home is in no way connected to any estimate on what those vulnerabilities are or how much money it would cost to reduce them.

Why have we not set goals?

Because if we set goals, we would then see that we have to spend a lot more money or take a lot of time to achieve those goals. Instead, the Bush administration has picked an arbitrary number every year to give to the states for homeland security, and it's given them freedom to spend that money almost any way they want. So the money is not based on need. We're not basing our plans on requirements or on goals. We're simply doling out a minimum amount of "pork" that goes to the states. ...

What was the impact on FEMA when Department of Homeland Security swallowed it up?

In the Clinton administration, FEMA had gone through a major reorganization ... after Hurricane Andrew, which was in the last year of the [George H.W.] Bush administration. Everyone realized that FEMA had been a dumping ground for political favors and political appointees, and the Clinton administration said, "OK, we don't want to have that happen on our watch, what happened to President Bush 41 with Hurricane Andrew. So let's clean out all the political appointees, lock the Democratic political appointees in there, but get professional emergency responders from state emergency response units, and create it as a professional agency." That was done. And the money for the agency was greatly increased.

Then it ... [became] a Cabinet-level position. It had more money, and it was professionalized. And Republicans and Democrats agree that it responded to crises in the 1990s very, very well. Then FEMA was merged into the Department of Homeland Security.

Are we skipping a step? Joe Allbaugh [George W. Bush's presidential campaign director in 2000] takes it over, [and] we're back to political appointees with no experience.

Well, when Joe Allbaugh took it over, a number of the senior positions that can be appointed by the president and appointed by the director were occupied by people who really hadn't done state-level or federal-level emergency management before. So we're back to giving out political jobs.

... In any event, the next thing that happened is when FEMA is merged into the Department of Homeland Security, it's no longer a Cabinet agency, so its head cannot appeal to the president for a budget. Its budget, in fact, over the years was cut once it went into the department. Its personnel was cut. They had a 10 percent reduction in personnel, so it gets political people filling its ranks. It gets depressed down two or three notches in the bureaucracy, and it gets fewer dollars and fewer people.

Is this happening to all the various agencies that are coming inside the Department of Homeland Security?

No. Some agencies that came within the Department of Homeland Security in fact got more money and more people. The Coast Guard, for example, which desperately needed more money and more people, once it was merged into the new department, got more money and more people.

I've heard the criticism that says that many of the agencies that were collected and put under DHS, many of them suffered as a result.

Some of them did. I don't know whether it's most of them or not, but many agencies still haven't recovered from the merger into the department.

Was it your sense that people were acutely aware of this in the White House when DHS was formed?

I'm not sure that the White House understood how bad it would be. They created a transition unit headed by Andy Card, the chief of staff, and involving people from the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Political Office and the White House Personnel Office to manage the integration. They didn't allow the experts in the agencies themselves to really run that integration.

So Andy Card would have understood the difficulties?

Andy Card was the head of the transition effort to create the department. He knew full well what the difficulties were. ...

So we're in the middle of this Katrina disaster, and what is going on at the White House between [Louisiana Gov. Kathleen] Blanco and Bush back and forth over the federalization of the National Guard?

Well, apparently the White House asked the governor's office of her intentions about federalizing the National Guard. Federalizing the National Guard means that the Louisiana National Guard and other states' National Guard units were moving to Louisiana, would transfer from the control of the governor to the control of the Pentagon. They would become regular Army units. That's what federalizing means. When the Louisiana National Guard was sent to Iraq, it was federalized. They then reported to the Pentagon and not to the governor. Apparently the governor was reluctant to give up control of her National Guard and the units from other states that were arriving.

But why couldn't she simply take command of the other troops that were arriving from other states?

She did. When National Guard units arrived from other states, they became part of the Louisiana National Guard and were under the control of the governor.

That's a centralized command. What's the matter with that?

What's the matter with that is that the Louisiana National Guard didn't have the command-and-control system that the Pentagon has, didn't have the ties to the military units, the regular Army and regular Marine units that were available in other states. There were hundreds of helicopters and regular Army units and regular Marine units within hours of Louisiana. There were hundreds of amphibious craft within hours of Louisiana in the regular military. And there were all sorts of supplies and capabilities in the regular military that the Louisiana National Guard didn't know about in any detail and didn't have a connection to.

The Pentagon, of course, had that inventory, had those assets, and if the Pentagon had been in charge, would have called on those units very early on.

So what was the consequence, therefore, of this back-and-forth between Baton Rouge and Washington?

I think a lot of time was wasted, time that should have been used to activate regular Army units and roll them into Louisiana. You know, after 9/11, the president created something called Northern Command. This is a new military unit headquartered in Colorado Springs, and Northern Command's job was to be the defense of the United States, to know all of the units that are based in the United States and to be able to command them in an emergency.

So had we decided early on that Northern Command was going to take charge of all military assets, then a lot more helicopters could have been in there rescuing people. More lives would have been saved earlier than was done.

So why were they not able to get it all done?

Well, I think the president, apparently, acquiesced to the governor's decision that she should be in charge of the National Guard. And he took that, apparently, as a reason why Northern Command shouldn't send in a lot of assets under its own authority. ... Eventually the decision was made that the National Guard and the regular military could operate together. ...

The picture you paint is one of a back-and-forth that led to significant delays at a very crucial time when people were stranded in the Convention Center or on their roofs.

These decisions should have been made before the hurricane even hit. They knew for days that the hurricane, the class five magnitude was going to hit a city that was already below sea level. They knew for days that the city could have been destroyed. They should have already decided on how the federal military response would take place.

So what does Katrina tell you about all the work that's been done in the last four years since 9/11 to get us ready for calamities?

All the planning in the world and all the money in the world doesn't do much good if you don't have people at the top who know how to make these decisions quickly, and are trained and expert in making them.

So it's a failure of leadership?

I think it's a failure of leadership at every level.

But given that in calamities, local and state officials are overwhelmed, does the onus of this fall more heavily on the federal government?

There comes a time when federal government has to say that state and local authorities cannot handle the situation, and we're sending in federal troops, and we're federalizing the local National Guard. That happened during riots in the 1960s where Lyndon Johnson federalized local National Guard units and sent in regular Army units over the objections of governors.

When it's clear that this is a magnitude greater than a normal hurricane, and it's clear that the capabilities of the state and local government will be destroyed by the attack or by the hurricane, then the federal government has to take charge.

Is this a difficult process? Is this something you drilled or prepared for when you were in the White House?

Well, for a terrorism attack we drilled and prepared for exactly this kind of situation, where only federal troops could get in in the number and in the speed that was required.

Now, one of the things we learned in doing exercises to train for this kind of eventuality was there's a law which the Pentagon likes to pretend prevents them from doing anything domestically. It's a 19th-century law called Posse Comitatus, and the Pentagon went around, and during these exercises we had in the 1990s [was] saying, "Well, you can't ask us to do these things -- Posse Comitatus."

We asked the Justice Department for a definitive legal interpretation of what the law said. What the law says is very little. What the law says is that regular Army, as opposed to National Guard, cannot arrest and cannot use force within the United States unless the president tells them to. There's a provision in the law whereby the president can waive the law, and all he has to do is sign what is called a Posse Comitatus declaration.

I had a Posse Comitatus declaration already drawn up in my safe in the White House. You could fill in blanks designating a particular city or particular area, and the president could have signed it within minutes. If I had ever been told when I was in the White House that a nuclear bomb had gone off in Cincinnati, the first thing I would have done is pull out that declaration, walk across to the president and have him sign it. So the federal government, using its military, could take control of a disaster that was beyond the capability of the city and state to deal [with].

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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