Was Michael Brown Set Up?

A Bill Arkin post cited in the Washington Post today suggested that Michael Brown of FEMA was set up to fail in the response to Katrina. His basic point is that WMD were the administration's priority and that natural disasters were given low priority by the President and his top advisers. He presents some interesting numbers to support that argument (see below). I accept his general point but the fact remains that Michael Brown was incompetent to run an emergency management agency.

Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 09/14/2005
Michael Brown Was Set Up: It's All in the Numbers
It's so easy to blame Michael Brown, but he got his marching orders from someone else. Weapons of mass destruction, not waves of mass destruction, are the president's priorities. Want to get on the White House Varsity team? Get with the program.

The same obsession that led the Bush administration to see weapons of mass destruction and terrorism in every tea leaf and go to war in Iraq now guides the entire federal government disaster response effort.

How do I prove the point? I've got the goods.

The president's December 17, 2003, National Preparedness directive (Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8) refers to "threatened or actual domestic terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies" (in that order) and defines "all-hazards preparedness" as "preparedness for domestic terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies."

Not exactly an afterthought, those major disasters, but from the presidential directive, government experts prepared a set of "For Official Use Only" National Planning Scenarios -- making its public debut here for the first time -- "describing plausible terrorist attacks and natural disasters that would stretch the Nation's prevention and response capabilities." The fifteen scenarios are "meant to be representative of a broad range of potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters ... to help direct comprehensive preparedness planning efforts," according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They are:

1. Nuclear Detonation: 10-Kiloton Improvised Nuclear Device
2. Biological Attack: Aerosol Anthrax
3. Biological Disease Outbreak: Pandemic Influenza
4. Biological Attack: Plague
5. Chemical Attack: Blister Agent
6. Chemical Attack: Toxic Industrial Chemical
7. Chemical Attack: Nerve Agent
8. Chemical Attack: Chlorine Tank Explosion
9. Natural Disaster: Major Earthquake
10. Natural Disaster: Major Hurricane
11. Radiological Attack: Radiological Dispersal Device
12. Explosives Attack: Bombing Using Improvised Explosive Devices
13. Biological Attack: Food Contamination
14. Biological Attack: Foreign Animal Disease (Foot and Mouth Disease)
15. Cyber Attack


Hurricanes and Natural Disasters: 2
Terrorism and WMD: 12

The president's national preparedness directive also required the federal agencies and departments to develop "readiness priorities, targets, and metrics." Utilizing the National Planning Scenarios to identify "the critical tasks that would need to be performed across the fifteen scenarios," DHS thus prepared a Target Capabilities List, "a set of thirty-six essential capabilities that should be developed and maintained, in whole or in part, by various levels of government to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks and major disasters." Version 1.0 of the Target Capabilities List was published January 31, 2005. In the list, various disasters are mentioned this many times:

* Hurricanes: 1
* Natural disasters: 5
* Terrorism: 121
* WMD: 77

Cumulative Score:

Hurricanes and Natural Disasters: 8
Terrorism and WMD: 210

Meanwhile, the National Response Plan was published in December 2004: "an all-discipline, all-hazards plan that establishes a single, comprehensive framework for the management of domestic incidents," according to the document. This is the umbrella plan that guides federal government support to State and local governments.

The "Base" Plan includes seven "incident annexes," (biological, cyber, food or agriculture, nuclear/radiological, oil and hazardous materials, terrorism, "catastrophic") only one of which deals with potential natural disasters. But even here "catastrophic incidents" are defined as "any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism [my emphasis], that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions." In the Base Plan, here's how often various disasters were mentioned:

* Hurricanes: 5
* Natural disasters: 22
* Terrorism: 375
* WMD: 607

Cumulative Score:

Hurricanes and Natural Disasters: 35
Terrorism and WMD: 1,192

Finally, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge published the National Preparedness Guidance on April 27, 2005, summarizing "how the Federal government proposes to strengthen the preparedness of the United States to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies, and how the Federal government proposes to invest homeland security resources in order to achieve the greatest return on investment for our Nation's homeland security." The Guidance says the process "is animated by a sense of urgency and by a commitment to risk-based priorities." In this document, the disasters mentioned breakout is:

* Hurricanes: 3
* Natural disaster: 7
* Terrorism/terrorist: 44
* WMD: 51

Final Score:

Hurricanes and Natural Disasters: 45
Terrorism and WMD: 1,287

FEMA, often a troubled, and almost always a neglected agency, was folded into the Department of Homeland Security where the name of the game is and was terrorism and WMD. State and local communities were themselves pressured to focus their own meager efforts on counter-terrorism and WMD to "be relevant" (and get the federal dollars). Thank God, Katrina has broken this dysfunctional auto-pilot.

Surely as government bureaucrats write more documents and as commissions get underway in Washington, someone must recognize the corrosive effect of focusing on terrorism and WMD to the exclusion of more plausible, frequent, and frankly, more realistic scenarios. FEMA needs to be restored as an independent agency, and it needs to be focused completely on disaster relief, shedding its "homeland security" (read counter-terrorism) and continuity of government missions (more about that coming up). What is more, the entire black hole of DHS needs to search its soul and balance its efforts between real day-to-day American needs and the competing big-bang mania.

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