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Brown’s turf wars sapped FEMA’s strength

Hurricane Katrina exposed FEMA as a dysfunctional organization, paralyzed in a crisis four years after the supposedly galvanizing attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  How did it get that way? Part 2 in a series.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On Sept. 15, 2003, one of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's deputies lobbed a bureaucratic hand grenade across his desk. In a seven-page memo, the new department's undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response told Ridge that his organizational plan would cripple America's ability to respond to disasters.

The memo, like so many that flew around Washington during the largest government reshuffling in decades, involved turf: Ridge had decided to move some of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's preparedness functions to an office less than one-fifteenth its size. The writer warned that the shift would make a mockery of FEMA's new motto, "A Nation Prepared," and would "fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions," "shatter agency morale," and "break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders."

The inevitable result, he wrote, would be "an ineffective and uncoordinated response" to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

The author was Michael D. Brown, who was FEMA's director as well as a Department of Homeland Security undersecretary. Two years later, Brown would lose both titles after Hurricane Katrina, when his prophecies of doom came true.

Katrina exposed FEMA as a dysfunctional organization, paralyzed in a crisis four years after the supposedly galvanizing attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it turned Brown -- a former executive of the International Arabian Horse Association who had no emergency management experience before joining the Bush administration -- into a symbol of government ineptitude. But Brown's well-chronicled gaffes in Louisiana had less impact on FEMA than his little-known power struggles in Washington. Brown lost almost all of them -- partly because he was widely despised at DHS for his relentless infighting -- and FEMA paid a price in money, manpower, missions and prestige.

In his first extensive interview about FEMA's chaotic integration into DHS, Brown acknowledged that the agency deteriorated on his watch. But he blamed its decline on the mammoth reorganization that forced FEMA into the new department, and on his constant setbacks once inside.

"The slogan was 'Do No Harm,' but we were doing harm," Brown said. "People became distracted from the mission, because we spent so much time and energy fighting for resources and working on reorganization. It just disintegrated our capacity."

Initially, Brown's bosses at DHS and the department's architects in the White House shared the same goal of a beefed-up FEMA; their catchphrase was "FEMA on steroids." But that is no longer the vision or the reality. And FEMA's deterioration is not only the most visible failure of DHS: It is also emblematic of the turf battles that have plagued the rest of the department.

‘Number one tribe’
This account -- drawing on internal documents and e-mails as well as interviews with Brown, FEMA officials and many of the DHS leaders who clashed with him, including Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff and his predecessor, Tom Ridge -- reveals a more complex Brown than the now-familiar caricature of cronyism and incompetence. Long before his e-mails portrayed a befuddled bureaucrat who fretted about restaurant reservations and his Nordstrom wardrobe while New Orleans drowned, he was known at DHS as a fierce turf warrior whose griping about FEMA's role alienated superiors and marginalized his agency.

"The biggest danger in the department was tribalism," said Bruce M. Lawlor, Ridge's initial chief of staff, "and FEMA was the number one tribe."

In many ways, Brown is a cautionary tale of what can happen to Washington officials who make mistakes in the public eye after making enemies behind the scenes. Brown spent two years trying to use his contacts with White House officials to undercut DHS, but the White House rarely backed him, and DHS leaders responded by shifting FEMA's responsibilities and resources to more cooperative agencies.

Ridge stripped FEMA's power over billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants as well as the creation of a national disaster response plan. Most of the agency's top staff quit. And after he arrived at DHS in February, Chertoff decided to take away the rest of FEMA's preparedness duties.

"I wasn't happy where we were on preparedness," Chertoff said.

Neither was Brown. He's now a punch line for late-night comics, but in the months before Katrina he was still firing off memos about "the absence of effective leadership" and "complete lack of accountability for results" at DHS. He wrote that Ridge's decisions had promoted "unfocused empire-building in duplicative mission areas" and predicted that Chertoff's restructuring was "doomed to fail."

As usual, his sky-is-falling pleas were ignored, and Brown finally admitted defeat. He planned to submit his resignation in early September.

But on Aug. 29, the sky fell. Brown had warned that his agency would be unprepared for a catastrophe, and he was right.

On June 5, 2002, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. called then-FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh with stunning news. President Bush was about to announce a secret plan to merge 22 agencies into a Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA was on the list.

Allbaugh immediately decided to quit. His handpicked deputy, his old friend Mike Brown, would replace him once the department took shape.

"Joe signed on to be agency head, not to play second fiddle," said Bruce P. Baughman, a former senior FEMA official. "He didn't want to be reporting to anybody but the president."

After managing Bush's 2000 campaign, Allbaugh had been exiled to FEMA when he lost a power struggle with the other members of Bush's "Iron Triangle," Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. But FEMA had enjoyed a renaissance under President Bill Clinton, who had entrusted it to his Arkansas emergency management director, James Lee Witt, and elevated the post to Cabinet level. And after Sept. 11, Allbaugh recognized that his obscure agency could take a lead role in the fight against terrorism.

With Vice President Cheney's support, Allbaugh cleared out FEMA's second floor to make room for an Office for National Preparedness. He also began plotting to seize the Justice Department's three-year-old Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), which already distributed anti-terrorism grants. Allbaugh wanted FEMA to oversee the inevitable cascade of post-Sept. 11 emergency dollars.

‘Gang of Five’
The White House officials who designed DHS also envisioned a more robust FEMA, leading America's efforts to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters. Ridge, Bush's homeland security adviser before he became DHS secretary, was a FEMA fan; as a congressman, he had written the Stafford Act, which governs the agency. The self-styled "Gang of Five" -- the mid-level aides who sculpted DHS in the White House basement -- also hoped to strengthen FEMA into a "prime-time agency," said Richard A. Falkenrath, a member of the gang. It would no longer be an independent Cabinet agency -- it would not even be called FEMA -- but it would swallow the ODP and control all federal emergency grants.

The goal was for FEMA to "go away and become something bigger, more important and more central to the role of the department," said Lawlor, another member of the gang.

FEMA's staff worried that their expertise with natural disasters would get lost in a terrorism-focused department. But while Ridge said the administration was aware of the "huge angst" at FEMA, it never considered preserving its independence. "If you didn't have a FEMA-like agency at Homeland Security, you'd have to create one," he said. Overall, Ridge figured, FEMA would benefit from the overhaul, because it would gain control of the ODP.

But the ODP and its patrons on Capitol Hill -- especially Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who had used his Appropriations Committee seat to help create the office at the Justice Department -- quietly blocked the administration's effort to meld it into FEMA.

The ODP had only about 150 employees, compared with FEMA's 2,500, but it was favored by law enforcement officials, who worried that FEMA's historic focus on floods and fires rather than bombs and anthrax would produce a funding shift from police departments to fire and emergency management departments.

The ODP's power play caught FEMA by surprise. Baughman, the head of FEMA's new preparedness office, tried to launch a rear-guard action on the Hill, but members of Congress kept reminding him that Witt had turned down an offer to start the ODP back in 1997.

"They said, 'You had this opportunity to take this, and you opted not to, so bye-bye, get out of my office,' " Baughman said.

So when Bush signed the Homeland Security Act in late 2002, the ODP ended up in the DHS border directorate, which had nothing to do with preparedness but made Gregg and others happy because it was nowhere near FEMA on the organizational chart. "We intended to put ODP into FEMA -- that was the vision," said Susan Neely, Ridge's communications adviser. "But on the Hill, you deal, you make these concessions."

FEMA's ambitious expansion plans were put on hold.

"First, we were told we need to strengthen ourselves," lamented Leo Bosner, the head of FEMA's employee union. "Then, no, no, stop everything."

FEMA did get a few new responsibilities, including the FBI's National Domestic Preparedness Office, as well as the National Disaster Medical System and the national drug stockpile from the Department of Health and Human Services. But the FBI stripped most of the NDPO's staff before sending it over to the new department, and after an emotional appeal from HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, Ridge agreed to send back the drug stockpile.

Now FEMA was supposed to morph into the new department's Emergency Preparedness and Response directorate. FEMA's director would be the directorate's undersecretary and would shed his FEMA title once FEMA vanished.

But that was Mike Brown's job. And he had different plans.

‘Guerrilla warfare’
Brown was a political operative before he was a horse specialist, staffing a committee in the Oklahoma legislature and chairing the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority. And after two years working for Allbaugh as general counsel and then deputy director, Brown thought he understood Washington well enough to know that if FEMA lost its unique identity -- its "brand" -- it would lose its power. At his swearing-in in February 2003, days before the official birth of DHS, he vowed to fight to make sure that FEMA remained FEMA.

But Ridge and his aides were eager to create a unified DHS brand that would signify the integration of its assorted parts. Congress had prohibited them from tinkering with the Coast Guard or the Secret Service, but FEMA was fair game, and they saw Brown's resistance to a name change as part of a larger resistance to integration within DHS. Lawlor, Ridge's chief of staff, said he resented all the time he wasted on Brown's "guerrilla warfare."

"He fought being part of DHS from Day One," another top DHS official recalled.

Brown got his way on the name; Ridge and his brand-conscious aides had to admit that "FEMA" sounded better than "EP&R." But when Brown sent a memo urging Ridge to defy Congress and move the ODP into FEMA, Ridge refused.

Brown further alienated Ridge's team when he argued that DHS did not need an emergency operations center at its headquarters because FEMA already had one. DHS built its own command center anyway, with Coast Guard officers in charge. "Everybody wanted a toy," Brown grumbled. "Fancy screens and all that kind of stuff."

Brown was the only undersecretary who did not work at DHS headquarters, and he wanted to keep it that way. "There was so much spinning of wheels," he said. "The meetings just drove me nuts."

But Ridge's team saw only that Brown cared more about FEMA than about DHS. "We started from the notion that we're always going to be looking for ways to bring things together," Neely said. "Anybody from the leadership team who embraced that notion was part of the inner circle."

So Brown was frozen out.

Ridge ultimately did decide to move the ODP and its preparedness grants -- but not to FEMA, as Brown had proposed. Instead, Ridge moved the ODP into his own office -- and began moving FEMA's preparedness grants into the ODP. He agreed with Brown's argument that there ought to be a "one-stop shop" for grants, just not that the shop belonged in FEMA.

That's when Brown wrote his September memo to Ridge. He emphasized that the White House originally intended to put the ODP into FEMA, even though its latest budget endorsed Ridge's new plan. He also argued that it would help Ridge thumb his nose at Congress, in order to set a precedent for future clashes .

But mostly he aired the substantive concerns of FEMA's staff members, who worried that Ridge's plan would separate emergency preparedness from response and endanger their relationships with first responders. At the state and local level, he noted, the people responsible for responding to disasters were the same people responsible for preparing for them.

"FEMA learned the hard way that disjointed efforts between preparedness and response create significant problems in effectively managing disasters," he wrote.

Brown insisted that "my sole motivation regarding these topics is to ensure that you have the benefit of all perspectives," and he pledged that regardless of Ridge's decisions, "the dedicated employees of EP&R/FEMA will work diligently to implement them." But when Ridge continued to balk, Brown appealed again to his White House contacts, especially Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph W. Hagin and personnel chief Clay Johnson III.

‘I always lost’
The White House often took the side of rival departments against Ridge, but it took Ridge's side against Brown. Eventually, Johnson told Brown to back off.

"At the end of the day, I always lost," Brown said.

Soon the ODP minnow began to swallow the FEMA whale. First, much of Allbaugh's new preparedness office moved to the ODP. It was followed by FEMA's grant program for fire departments, then a terrorism training program for local emergency managers, then a series of additional grants.

ODP then merged with an Office of State and Local Government Coordination that Ridge had created. And when the department was tasked with creating a "National Preparedness Goal" to focus attention on likely disaster scenarios, Ridge assigned the job to the bulked-up new office. Meanwhile, morale plummeted at FEMA; in one survey of large agencies, it ranked last in worker satisfaction. Senior career staff members left in droves.

Ridge and his aides now believed that FEMA should be a response and recovery agency, not a preparedness agency. In an age of terrorism, they argued, preparedness needed a law enforcement component, to prevent and protect as well as get ready to respond.

But that's not the only reason the minnow ate the whale. Ridge's team wanted to knit DHS together, and FEMA kept standing apart. The ODP's director, C. Suzanne Mencer, was "very much a part of the inner circle," as Neely put it. Brown was not.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 directed FEMA to develop a National Response Plan, the linchpin of post-Sept. 11 efforts to ensure smoother responses to disasters. It was a logical assignment; FEMA already oversaw a Federal Response Plan, and Brown and his staff figured they could easily tweak it into a larger government strategy for catastrophes.

But that was exactly what Ridge's people did not want. They wanted a bold new approach for a frightening new world. So a few days after the department was born, Ridge reassigned the plan to James M. Loy, a Coast Guard admiral who was running the Transportation Security Administration.

Ridge did not even inform Brown of his decision, and some offended FEMA officials, joked Ridge aide Robert B. Stephan, "had frothy sputum come out of their mouth." Ridge had to order Brown to force FEMA staffers to attend meetings about the plan.

"It was never particularly pleasant," Loy recalled. "Mike's inclination was to continue to do it the way it used to be done."

FEMA officials thought the first DHS draft was awful. "They had an extremely simplistic view, as though the whole country was the army and we were the generals," said Bosner, FEMA's union chief. "The gist was: We'll give orders and everybody will jump and say, Sir, yes, sir!" Sure enough, the draft sparked an uproar among local, state and rival federal agencies.

Ridge assigned Stephan to fix the plan, but Stephan said that Brown "never, never, never bought into the concept." Brown was most upset that, under the plan, the DHS secretary would appoint a "principal federal officer" to oversee disasters -- a FEMA official in a fire or flood, but probably a law enforcement official in a terror incident. Until then, FEMA's director had reported directly to the president during all disasters.

"It was just another dad-gummed layer of bureaucracy," Brown said.

Stephan explained that FEMA would run the emergency response and recovery even if the principal officer were from another agency, but Brown still balked. "Mike didn't understand or maybe didn't want to accept that someone outside FEMA could have this designation," Stephan said.

‘DHS tax’
Meanwhile, DHS continued to divert some of FEMA's funds -- the staff called this the "DHS tax" -- along with manpower and missions. "The result has led to confusion and the duplication of mission areas within the Department," Brown wrote in another memo. What was the point of an emergency preparedness and response directorate with no preparedness assets or responsibilities?

But the more Brown griped, the less his bosses listened. And the more preparedness assets FEMA lost, the less it made sense for FEMA to handle preparedness at all. "It was a vicious cycle," Brown said Ridge said he finally laid down the law during a meeting about preparedness in the fall of 2004. You lose, he remembered telling Brown: "You don't have the wherewithal to do it."

Brown said he still considered one more memo to Ridge but grudgingly relented after White House friends told him to "stop banging my head against the wall." He complained in one e-mail that everyone who questioned DHS groupthink was "labeled as 'being difficult' or 'not a team player.' "

Brown was right: He was not considered a team player. And in the White House as well as the department, FEMA was no longer considered an agency worth expanding.

"The FEMA I experienced really wanted to stay the way it was," Falkenrath said. "It was like an insurance company that swung into action after the weather got bad."

While Brown was complaining that FEMA was being destroyed by its merger into DHS, a smaller agency was airing similar complaints about its merger into FEMA. And Brown was not expressing much sympathy.

In December 2004, Jeffrey A. Lowell, a St. Louis transplant surgeon who was Ridge's medical adviser, stopped by Brown's office. Ridge had asked Lowell to assess federal medical response capabilities -- especially the National Disaster Medical System, which was now part of FEMA -- and Lowell had given Brown an advance copy of his scathing report.

Lowell found out that Brown could be scathing, too.

"He said: 'How dare you? You can't give this to Ridge!' " Lowell recalled. "I was stunned. Everyone on the planet knew about these problems."

In a crisis, the NDMS was supposed to deploy and coordinate volunteer teams of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. It was originally housed in the Department of Health and Human Services, and in 2002 a similar report commissioned by HHS Assistant Secretary Jerome M. Hauer found that the NDMS lacked a "clear, consistent vision," that it had "systematic readiness issues," and that its central command was dangerously disconnected from its 7,000 volunteers. "We knew what was wrong, and we were beginning to fix it," Hauer said.

Then the NDMS was transferred to DHS. HHS Secretary Thompson was outraged, and he pleaded with Ridge to send it back with the drug stockpile. When Hauer suggested that the move was defensible, Thompson exploded: "Don't talk about that outside this office! You work for me!"

‘Absolute nightmare’
Ultimately, Ridge decided that the NDMS would stay. "That was a terrible mistake," Thompson said. "It belonged in the health department . . . and Mike Brown was an absolute nightmare."

The turf battles intensified after conflicting presidential directives put DHS in charge of the overall response to a disaster but left HHS in charge of the medical response. "Basically, much of '03-04 was a war between DHS and HHS," a former White House official recalled.

In September 2003, HHS tried to wrest control of the NDMS from DHS during Hurricane Isabel; Brown blocked the move. In November 2004, Hauer's successor, Stewart Simonson, told his staff not to work with DHS's Lowell; he was furious that Lowell had not invited him to a medical briefing by Israeli security officers. "I did not feel Dr. Lowell was a constructive partner, and I made that very clear," Simonson said.

Meanwhile, the NDMS floundered. Lowell's report found that it was "woefully underfunded, undermanned, and too remote from DHS leadership to gain the visibility it needs." Its paid staff had shriveled from 144 to 57 and did not even include a physician. The report also included vicious anonymous quotes from NDMS volunteers complaining about FEMA's unpaid bills, faulty equipment and intransigent leadership.

"NDMS is losing functional effectiveness under FEMA's inflexible and inappropriate management," Lowell wrote.

But Ridge was about to leave the administration, and Brown believed that the NDMS teams were just upset because FEMA was enforcing some budget discipline. So nothing came of the report. That spring, Brown told an NDMS conference that he knew some teams were upset about their move to FEMA. His advice: "Get over it."

The National Association of NDMS Response Teams sent a letter to Ridge's successor, Michael Chertoff, that was even harsher than Lowell's report. It warned that two years after their move to FEMA, they were less prepared than ever: "We feel that the identity of the NDMS is being lost via FEMA's efforts to 'swallow' NDMS functions, rather than support them . . . During transition, it has been fragmented, reduced, and relegated to a position without the authority, staff, resources . . . or systems in place at FEMA to move forward with the most fundamental of readiness and critical mobilization issues."

Today, Brown acknowledges that those complaints about FEMA sound a lot like his critical memos about DHS: "I recognize the irony." But at the time, Brown dismissed the critics in e-mails to his staff as "Kids who don't get it!"

"Clearly there is a group within NDMS that does not like us," Brown wrote. "We need to nip this in the bud pronto. Whatever it takes."

Undersecretary vs. secretary
After Chertoff was sworn in last winter, he promptly began a "Second Stage Review," preparing to reconfigure the new department. And Brown promptly began bombarding his office with memos, relitigating fights that FEMA had lost under Ridge.

On the National Response Plan: "The time is right for FEMA to be given full responsibility for all aspects."

On the shift of the ODP: "This reorganization has failed to produce tangible results."

On DHS raids on FEMA's budget: "A total of $77.9 million has been permanently lost from the base."

Brown even took his appeal public, declaring in a speech to emergency managers that all of the department's preparedness grants should go back to FEMA. Chertoff's aides, worried that Brown was boxing in the new secretary, frantically prepared a release clarifying that DHS policy had not changed.

Chertoff, a blunt-spoken former prosecutor and judge, was not swayed by Brown's appeals. "I don't box in very easily," he said. He agreed with Brown that preparedness was a serious deficiency, but not that FEMA was the place to fix it.

Instead, Chertoff endorsed a plan that had originated at the ODP -- to replace Brown's EP&R directorate with a new preparedness directorate that would absorb whatever remained of FEMA's preparedness mission. He agreed with Brown's bureaucratic rivals that FEMA was too busy responding to daily disasters to focus on the long-term planning needed to prepare for a major catastrophe.

DHS officials dangled the possibility of heading the new directorate in front of Brown, but he was not interested. "It's a Hobson's choice," Brown e-mailed a friend in the White House. "Take something that I don't believe in and that I don't think will work, or stay at FEMA and try to keep it from failing. Geez, what a life!"

Brown sent one last-ditch memo to Chertoff's deputy, warning that under the new plan, "FEMA is doomed to failure and loss of mission." But his appeal was rejected, and after his White House contacts said they could not find him a job elsewhere in the administration, Brown decided to submit his resignation after Labor Day.

FEMA's career professionals made similar choices. Eric Tolbert, chief of the agency's response division, said he quit this year because DHS was siphoning away "huge chunks" of his budget. Chertoff points out that FEMA's budget has increased since Sept. 11, but Tolbert said the periodic incursions "dramatically impacted my ability to maintain a readiness level."

For example, a FEMA exercise simulating a Category 4 hurricane in New Orleans was suspended when funding ran out. "Those of us involved became pretty disenchanted near the end," Tolbert said.

Can I quit now?’
On Sunday, Aug. 28, Brown was supposed to be finalizing his resignation letter. Instead, he was on his way to Louisiana for Katrina and chuckling into his BlackBerry. Hagin had e-mailed from Bush's ranch, teasing that his imminent departure no longer seemed so imminent: You didn't get out in time!

Brown would be gone soon enough.

His agency, as he had predicted, was not ready. Its relations with state and local agencies, as he had warned, were in shambles. Three of its five operations chiefs for natural disasters and nine of its 10 regional directors were temporary fill-ins. And as Katrina approached, Brown and his aides were still balking at a DHS directive to join an interagency crisis management group -- and ignoring DHS requests for information.

"Let them play their reindeer games as long as they are not turning around and tasking us with their stupid questions," Brown's deputy chief of staff e-mailed him.

Once Katrina came ashore, the newly completed National Response Plan spectacularly failed its first test. Chertoff neglected to activate it until the day after landfall, and Brown resisted the secretary's efforts to name him the principal federal official. And the 426-page plan proved to be mostly irrelevant once local responders were unable to participate; FEMA had not finalized the "Catastrophic Annex" that was supposed to guide that situation.

"Can I quit now?" Brown e-mailed a press aide during the storm. "Can I go home?

Katrina also triggered the biggest deployment in the National Disaster Medical System's history. Thompson called the result "a national embarrassment." In an after-action report, NDMS team leader Timothy Crowley, a doctor on the Harvard Medical School faculty, called the deployment a "TOTAL FAILURE."

Crowley's team was summoned late, then sent to Texas instead of Louisiana, then parked in Baton Rouge for a week while New Orleans suffered. When the team was finally sent to the disaster zone, it was immediately overwhelmed, but NDMS leaders told Lowell there was no help available, even though he later found out that a host of other teams "had been sitting on their butts for days waiting and asking for missions."

"The current management team and disaster response is completely dysfunctional," Crowley wrote. "I never learned what sort of political agenda or just plain incompetence or stupidity were behind these decisions." His report was harsh, but not atypical.

"I was holding back!" he said.

Katrina has inspired a round of soul-searching throughout DHS. A terrorist attack, after all, would not provide several days' warning; Chertoff has vowed to "retool FEMA, maybe even radically, to increase our ability to deal with catastrophic events."

But Brown believes that if DHS leaders had not spent so much time retooling FEMA in the first place, his name would not be a synonym for poor performance. He's proud of the losing battles he fought inside DHS, and he could not resist a final dig at his old bosses.

"To this day," he said, "I'm not sure they've got a vision for the department."

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.