Michael Brown: I was ‘left on the battlefield’

Former FEMA director Michael Brown sat down with Brian Williams on Feb. 24 for his first network television interview since resigning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "NBC Nightly News" aired a brief portion of the interview on that day. You can read it by clicking here.

Brian Williams: When did you realize that there was a complete disconnect between what you were saying and the situation on the ground?

Michael Brown: On Tuesday, August 30th, sometime in the morning, there was a secure conference call, and the president takes control of that call and pretty much shuts everybody up and says, "I need to hear from Brown right now what's going on." And I remember my first words to him were, "Mr. President, my estimate is that 90 percent — 90 percent — of the population of New Orleans has now been displaced." And there was just that split second of silence. And [then], "90 percent?" "Yes sir, I believe it is that bad. That's how bad it is." I really thought that would get just the whole mechanism of the federal government to come charging in. There are e-mail traffics of my conversations about my fear about this being the "Big One." Everyone should've known what we were facing.

Williams: Why aren't you shouting from the mountaintops?

Brown: I did.  And I want to show you an e-mail where I am screaming at my staff in this e-mail: "Where is the Army?" I've talked to them about the Army; I want the Army now. "Where the hell are they? Why haven't they shown up yet?"

Williams:Millions of Americans kept asking, "Are they not watching the same pictures we're watching?"

Brown: One of the mistakes that I've owned up to was this whole mentality that exists in Washington, D.C. — that you get your talking points. And, by God, you stick to your talking points. And what I should have done was gone to the American people — instead of putting my arm around Governor Blanco and talking about how wonderfully things are working — we should have told them: "This is a disaster of the magnitude that this country has never seen. We are struggling. We're gonna do everything we can to help make this thing better. We're gonna call in all the resources. We need your patience and understanding" — and paint them a realistic picture. You see, I believe that people in D.C. don't believe that the American people can handle the truth.

Williams: You are, like it or not, part of the American lexicon because of a  phrase uttered by the president of the United States. Take me back to that day — that moment — he's standing next to you, you heard him say it. Did you still think you could win this?

Brown: I did. I really thought I could still win it, because all I needed was for DOD to come in and help me with logistics — establish a new supply chain for materials. And I knew that we could do that, because that's what FEMA does. And when the president turned, he said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." I really thought to myself he's being typically presidential; that's what he tends to do. But I also thought that it was going to irritate some people.

Williams: Why?

Brown: Because, suddenly, I was part of the inner circle. Do you know how many people in the country — how many people in the world — call me "Brownie?" One.

Williams: Why was yours the only head to roll after Katrina?

Brown: Part of being a presidential appointee is that you have to be willing to fall on the sword for the president of the United States. And, clearly, I either fell on the sword or was pushed on the sword. I'll leave that for others to make that judgment. And so, I think that I was made a scapegoat, in that regard. Most always, though, really, they never leave their wounded or their dead on the battlefield. And, in this case, I'm willing to take the fall for the president, but I wish I hadn't been left on the battlefield.