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Michael Brown defends his controversial role

Former FEMA director, Michael Brown, defends his controversial role leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina. Was Brown ignored by the Bush Administration? Chris Matthews gets the tough questions answered six months later.
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New tapes have opened up the wounds of Hurricane Katrina again calling into question the ethics of the Bush Administration.

Former FEMA director, Michael Brown joined Chris Matthews on ‘Hardball’ Friday to discuss the impact the tapes will have on the Bush administration and upcoming midterm congressional elections.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, HARDBALL:  You briefed the president.  In fact, you're saying he's asking questions about reports of breaches.  You're on the record on that tape saying the president's into the issue, he's understanding your work as his manager on this project, and yet he comes out afterwards and says nobody imagined that there was ever going to be a breach of the levees.

MICHAEL BROWN, FMR FEMA DIRECTOR:  Knowing this president, I think what he was saying was, you know, we really didn't anticipate the breach.  We didn't think about that breach occurring.  He was just stating that, you know, we didn't want it to happen, we didn't think it was going to happen.  I'm not going to try to spin it for him, but I really do think this is what was in his head. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, in other words, he was hoping against hope it wouldn't happen even though he had been briefed. 

But to say that nobody imagined it, isn't true, because you guys were putting together all the effort to try to be ready when it does happen.

BROWN:  Right, and that is true, and that's one of my frustrations, is because for two-and-a-half, three years, I'd been pushing the Department of Homeland Security to give us the money to do the kind of catastrophic planning specifically for New Orleans.

MATTHEWS: I'm sure you've thought this over a million times as your head hits the pillow each night.  And let's say, the weekend before, the storm's coming here.  We're all watching the weather stuff every night.  Five, Category 5, down to 4, back to 5, down to 4, back to 5. 

As it's coming towards the coast, and you're looking at the city of New Orleans—and I admit I couldn't believe it was going to be flooded.  Who believed New Orleans was going to go underwater?  All those people living there, right?

BROWN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  What were you thinking?

BROWN:  I was worried about it actually doing that.  You know, Max Mayfield at the Hurricane Center has this great cone that he describes where the hurricane can go anywhere, you know, within that cone.  And so my big hope was the hurricane would veer further to the east and go into Mississippi or further to the west and go into Texas.  Sorry, Rick.

But the point is, my fear was it would hit New Orleans, because that's what every emergency management expert in the country has feared for decades is the big one hitting New Orleans.

MATTHEWS:  Because the city is so underwater.  It's below sea level, and because it's way out there in terms of not being protected from the sea.  It's really out there in the gulf.

BROWN:  That's correct.  Plus, you have levees that are old.  You don't know about the integrity of these levees.  We've often described New Orleans as potentially being a fishbowl, and that was our concern, and then a fishbowl that becomes toxic because of all of the chemicals and everything else that would be caught in those waters that couldn't go anywhere.

MATTHEWS:  What did you think of those walls that were up around the city that let the canal go through the city, those canals?  They never looked like they could take much pressure.  They're just walls stuck in the ground.

It's like getting a door and jamming it in the ground and saying that will stand up.

BROWN:  Chris, that's why two or three years ago, I went to the administration and said I need $100 million to do catastrophic disaster planning.  And with all due respect to my friends Joe Allbaugh and James Lee Witt, we never did catastrophic disaster planning.  I said give me that money, and we're going to start on a plan of doing a bunch of these and ...

MATTHEWS:  ... or were you just generally a worried type guy?

BROWN:  Well, no, because after 9/11 and going through all of that and worrying about, you know, a biological attack, I knew we were not ready for a catastrophic disaster.  So let's do the planning for that.  And my argument was, let's go to New Orleans first, because in my opinion, New Orleans and California is pretty well-prepared for the big one, even though it will still be a catastrophe.

MATTHEWS:  But they talk about it all the time.

BROWN:  Right, exactly.  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  The San Andreas fault is right there, yes.

BROWN:  Exactly.  Exactly.  But New Orleans had not been struck by a major hurricane in decades, and so I am concerned that that's the place we ought to start first.  And I got the money to do the initial plan, the initial exercise, and then they cut me off.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let's go to rosy scenario.  We've seen the worst scenario.

BROWN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Rosy scenario is suppose the president had given you the money.  Would you have had time to put in the stronger defenses against the water?


MATTHEWS:  OK, so that wouldn't have happened.

BROWN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  So we're talking about potentially down the road.  If the president had been fully engaged, if you had been on target and done everything right the week before this thing, could we have gotten everybody out of New Orleans so there wouldn't be all those scared, starving, worried faces there at the Superdome?

BROWN:  We could have gotten most of them out.

MATTHEWS:  What do you mean by that?  I really want to know this because Ray Nagin reported—I remember very clearly—you know, we're going to get 90 percent of the people out of this town.  That sounds like a great number, 90 percent, until you realize that leaves 50,000 people stranded.

BROWN:  Exactly, and who are those 50,000 people? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the people without cars.

BROWN:  Without cars.  They are in hospitals.  They are in prisons.  They are people that cannot get out.  Plus, some that will not get out because that home, that modest little home, they have in the lower ninth ward is their safety net.  And they don't want to leave that. 

MATTHEWS:  So let me go back to the rosy scenario.  If you had a very respected mayor, a guy who knew what he was doing, and you had those buses filled with drivers—you could easily recruit drivers in an emergency situation.

BROWN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Could you have gotten all of those people out?

BROWN:  I could have gotten 99% of them out.

MATTHEWS:  So what went wrong?  How come those buses sat and got buried in the water like everybody else?

BROWN:  Well, and that is one of things that in hindsight I can just kick myself in the butt in.

MATTHEWS:  Would you have called up Nagin and said Mayor Nagin I don't want to talk to you, I want to give you some orders?  These are the orders from the federal government.  Get those bus drivers, if you have got to hire them off the street corner.  Get those buses gassed up and get those people out of town.  Could you have done that?

BROWN:  Well, I did better than that.  I called the president and said Mr. President I want you to call Nagin and Blanco and tell them.  As the president of the United States do a mandatory evacuation now.  This is on Saturday.

MATTHEWS:  And what did he say?

BROWN:  He was astonished.  He said you really want me to call them?  And I said yes, sir, I do.  And he did.  He called them and said, look guys, you have got to do it mandatory.

MATTHEWS:  So they ignored him?

BROWN:  I think they ignored him.  I think they waited too long.  I think they waited way too long.

MATTHEWS:  What kind of an order was it?  The president says I am using my executive authority here.  This is an imminent domain kind of thing.  You are going to do it.

BROWN:  He has no authority in that regard.  He has no authority. 

Federalism still lives in this country.

MATTHEWS:  So it was all just advisory?

BROWN:  That's right.  I'll admit something to you here.  The thing that I could have done—and maybe this hindsight, which is 20-20 -- I could have seen—and I knew that the fact the mayor wasn't doing that.  Maybe what I should have done was just somehow gotten the White House or somebody to invoke the insurrection act and we just send military there.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a question.  This is probably going to bug some people.  From the first time I saw Nagin, I thought he was a slow-acting, slow-talking guy.  Is that his manner or is that just the way people talk down there?  Is this that lazy kind of it's a hot day I am not going to waste my energy kind of guy? 

Because nobody down there looked like a New Yorker, some kind of urgent type-A type, let's get the hell out of dodge.  We have got to move this thing.  I never got that sense.  And people would say to me, oh, he is tired. 

You know, it's been a hard couple of days.  He's been up all night.  No wonder he is talking slow.  Is that just the manner of people down there?  Everybody seems so laid back.

BROWN:  I don't know about their manner.  But I think there was a lot of complacency.  You know, if you rewind back to 2004 in Florida—and, again, people can say well I am putting Jeb up here as a great example because he is a friend.  But they are prepared because they have been hit, and they know what they have to do.

New Orleans hasn't been hit forever. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You're onto business now.  By the way, what was it like to have Cheney come down there?  Did he come down and watch you for a day and then fire you?  Or how did he do it?

BROWN:  Well, he came down and watched me for a day. 

MATTHEWS:  Was that theater?

BROWN:  I don't know.

MATTHEWS:  Did you think he was honestly trying to assess your performance?  Or he was just to make it look like I want to let everybody know I have got to the crowbar, I can come down here the day before and whack this guy the next day, so everybody knows I am the boss?  Did Cheney fire you or did Bush do it?

BROWN:  Neither one did.  Chertoff sent me home.  Well, he said that I was tired, and I needed to go home and get some rest and get ready for the next day.

MATTHEWS:  Was he under the heat from Bush?

BROWN:  I think everybody was under heat because it wasn't as good as we wanted it to be.  And I looked Chertoff in the eye and said so this is the firing isn't it?  And he said, oh no, no, I just want you to go home and get some rest.

MATTHEWS:  But it turned out it was.

BROWN:  Well, absolutely it was.  I am no dummy.  I didn't just fall off the apple cart.  I knew exactly what he was doing.

MATTHEWS:  Why did Chertoff get cut out of the loop here?  Why did you bother to even call him and say I am calling the president?

BROWN:  Oh because I just call the president directly.  That is how we always operated.  That's how I operated in the 160 disasters I handled.  And for a man who is going to tell me to go sit in a chair in Baton Rouge and run a disaster sitting behind a desk, I am not going to waste my time.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Why do you think the president didn't ask any questions when you were briefing him?

BROWN:  Because I had already talked to him.

MATTHEWS:  It wasn't lack of interest.

BROWN:  No.  He is getting a bad rep on that.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he is a good chief executive?

BROWN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Now, here is the exchange between you, Mr. Brown, and Brian Williams of NBC on September 1st.  Now, that's three days after Katrina hit land.  Let's take a look.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Where is the aid?  It is the question people keep asking us on camera.

BROWN:  Brian, it is an absolutely fair question.  And I have got to tell you from the bottom of my heart how sad I feel for those people.  The federal government just learned about those people today.


MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you think about that?  I mean, there you are three days after saying you just learned about—were you not watching TV?

BROWN:  No, we were.  I don't know how many times I have to explain this to everyone.

MATTHEWS:  Well, because people like me have been sitting—were in this chair during that.

BROWN:  Oh, I know and I was too.  And I was up for 24 hours and then Brian and Koppel and all the other guys kept asking me.  And I remember going after all these interviews and saying why do they keep asking me that.  I kept saying yes, we just learned about it.  And they said because they think you mean you just now learned about it. 

And I had been up for 24 hours, and I had learned about it exactly when they had started reporting, when they started coming out of the hotels and flooding in there.  I simply misspoke, like, four times in a row.

MATTHEWS:  What do you mean by just when it was three days before it was happening?

BROWN:  Oh, no, no.  You are talking about the convention center?

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes.  You make the distinction between the convention center and the Superdome.

BROWN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And in this medium of television where you saw those hundreds of African-American faces, poor people, sweating and scared to death, those faces, that imagery of the difference between the Superdome and the convention center is nothing.  To us it was all the same thing.

BROWN:  All the same thing, right.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it was all the same thing.

But you knew about the Superdome?

BROWN:  Well, we had planned for the Superdome, because you've heard all these tapes of me.

MATTHEWS:  So you were aware—let me ask you about this crazy phrase the president used the other day.  It sounded like the kind of language that lawyers give you, “situational awareness.”  He said he didn't have it.  In other words, he didn't know what was going on on the ground. 

It was like the commander in chief in Washington doesn't know what's going on in the front when there is a war, which is scary because we are in a war right now.  He said he didn't have situational awareness.  What does he mean by that, the president?

BROWN:  Well, I think what he meant was he didn't understand exactly what was going on down there in New Orleans itself.

MATTHEWS:  Why did Brian Williams know?  And Shepherd Smith and Anderson Cooper all seemed to know, because they're putting it on television every night?

BROWN:  Because they're putting it on television every night.

MATTHEWS:  You didn't have people there.

BROWN:  Oh, I had lots of people there.  I had people in the Superdome.

MATTHEWS:  Then why weren't they calling up the president, saying here's what's going on here?  Watch Channel 7.

BROWN:  I was.

MATTHEWS:  Watch 63.

BROWN:  I was.

MATTHEWS:  You were telling him which channels to watch?

If you were making him aware, why wasn't he aware?  This is the disconnect here.

BROWN:  I told the president on Tuesday, because I remember he was really surprised by this, that I believed that 90 percent of the New Orleans population had been displaced, and it was—I mean, I repeated myself.  I said, Mr. President, 90 percent of the population has been displaced.

MATTHEWS:  Why did he need to have a DVD shown to him that Thursday after two or three days of this hell and bedlam down there, to tell him what had been on television for two or three days?

BROWN:  I don't really think about that.

MATTHEWS:  That the president of the United States needs a re-up, a recap of the biggest horror in the country going on.  But he needs to say, here's what you missed, Mr. President. 

BROWN:  I don't really think about it.

MATTHEWS:  Because it's like suggesting he has some other job.

MATTHEWS:  The president he has some other place he goes besides America when something like this is going on.  That's the question mark.

BROWN:  Right, but you're asking the wrong guy.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

BROWN:  You're asking the wrong guy.

MATTHEWS:  In the end, how would you rate yourself one to 10, your performance?

BROWN:  I would give myself a five, because there's a lot more I could have done.

MATTHEWS:  How about the president?  How about the president?

BROWN:  I'll give him a five.

MATTHEWS:  How about Chertoff?

BROWN:  I'll give him a two.

MATTHEWS:  Should Chertoff be relieved of duty? 

Of is he unfortunate to can be head of an agency that artificially has both terrorism under it—and he's a prosecutor, a judge.  That's his field, catching bad guys, preventing crime, preventing terrorism, and then saying oh by the way, you're in charge of storms, agricultural disasters and everything else?  Is that a stupid thing to put together.

BROWN:  It is.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  FEMA should not be in Homeland.

BROWN:  It should not, and I—the president put me on the transition to put FEMA in there, and I thought I could make it work.  But I've come to the conclusion it won't work and FEMA has to come out.

MATTHEWS:  Let me show you what Chertoff said about you after this thing.  It was on February 15th.  I'm sure this is painful and unpleasant, but here he is.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY:  Are we dealing with a situation where it's not just an inherent, overwhelming challenge, but that maybe despite good intentions, Mr. Brown is really not up to this.


BROWN:  Yes, he's full of it.  I was up to it.  He wouldn't let me do my job.  And if I'm angry about anything, I really am angry about the fact he would not let me do my job.

MATTHEWS:  What does that mean?

BROWN:  When he told me I had to go to Baton Rouge, I'd been in Mississippi talking to Haley Barbour.  This disaster covered 90,000 square miles, and so I'm trying to cover all of that.

MATTHEWS:  Then why would he tell you to just go to one—because that was where the pressure point was, politically?

BROWN:  I don't know.  Go ask him sometime, because you cannot run a disaster sitting behind a desk and trying to make things work.  You've got to go in the field.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why did he think that would be—what could you do there? 

BROWN:  I don't know.  I don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  That ended up being the place where all the bureaucrats were placed.

BROWN:  That's right.  The bureaucrats are not the ones that I'm worried about.  I'm worried about the guys in the field, the people who were trying to get supplies into the Superdome, the medical teams who were trying to get into Gulfport, Mississippi.

MATTHEWS:  You could probably do a national service here by writing a little handbook, say about a 50-page handbook on how to do this job in a hurricane.

BROWN:  I'm doing that with some clients right now.

MATTHEWS:  But I mean for the next guy or woman who gets your job.

BROWN:  Nobody wants the job. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, after what happened with you there, you weren't exactly like the Paul Bunyan of this thing.  You weren't leading people into the Promised Land here.  You know, it's not a great job, look how I did it.

BROWN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Are you glad you served your country?

BROWN:  I am honored to have served my country.

MATTHEWS:  But your big advice is, A, break up Homeland Security.  It was created in a race after 9/11.  Take out FEMA and put it where?

BROWN:  Make it an independent agency.  Whether it has cabinet status or not is not important.

MATTHEWS:  Would the person who runs FEMA, under your new configuration, be a person who reports to the president?

BROWN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  And he should be able to get him on the line when he wants to.

BROWN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  So it should be a “friend of the president” kind of a job.  I'm serious.  Like a Joseph Allbaugh, a guy the president's comfortable dealing with.

BROWN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Not somebody he just was introduced to.

BROWN:  That's right.

MATTHEWS:  So it should be like a former governor, or a former—who would be the ideal kind of person?

BROWN:  Yeah, a former governor, not a military guy.

MATTHEWS:  Not somebody from the Arabian Horses Racing Association.

BROWN:  But you guys are unfair about that.

MATTHEWS:  OK, why am I unfair?

BROWN:  Because I spent a third of my career in state and local government, doing emergency management.  And I went through two Senate confirmations.  I've got a Top Secret clearance.  If I had lied on my resume, the FBI would have caught me and said something.

MATTHEWS:  So you had to put it in there.

BROWN:  So it's in there.

MATTHEWS:  Okay, can I take it back?

BROWN:  Would you please?

MATTHEWS:  I will; I'm taking it back.

BROWN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  You had better preparation for the job than that job.

BROWN:  Thank you.


BROWN:  It's about time.

MATTHEWS:  But this is HARDBALL, and you agreed to come on.You didn't think I was going to bring up that little sugar puff.

BROWN:  No, I was actually hoping that you would.

MATTHEWS:  You had to clear the record.

What was your strongest suit, preparation for this job, then?  What would you say really prepared you to be FEMA director?

BROWN:  Management and the ability to lead people.  Ability to get people to do what needs to be done, particularly under stress.

MATTHEWS:  Would you hire Chertoff to work for you?


MATTHEWS:  Would you hire George Bush?

BROWN:  Yes.

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