Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 16, 2006

Chertoff discusses Katrina in Senate HSGAC hearing

Filed under: DHS News,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on February 16, 2006

Sec. Chertoff was a witness today at a Senate HSGAC hearing on Katrina as part of their ongoing investigation of the response to the hurricane. His full prepared testimony is available here, and a transcript of the entire hearing can be found here. News stories from the Associated Press and the New York Times provide summary remarks on the hearing, and Chertoff spoke with the PBS NewsHour after the hearing.

This was the one of the final hearings in the HSGAC’s investigation of Hurricane Katrina, which has included a total of 20 hearings with 270 witnesses to date. It came several days after a hearing last Friday where former FEMA Director Michael Brown attacked Chertoff as part of a defense of his own actions. And it coincided with the release of the House’s final report on Hurricane Katrina.

Overall, the hearing had a high level of decorum. Chertoff defended himself in specific instances but also took responsibility for the Department’s failings and responded candidly to key questions. The Senators were tough, but (with only a couple of exceptions) asked a lot of good questions that helped to expand the body of knowledge about the details and timeline of DHS’s response to Katrina.

Some key points from the hearing:

1. Chertoff took direct responsibility for DHS’s role in the response:

I am responsible for the Department of Homeland Security. I’m accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department, the bad and the good. I also have the responsibility to fix what’s wrong.

2. He noted his astonishment at Michael Brown’s testimony last week:

I have to put out of my mind the events of last Friday, because I have to tell you, it was astonishing to me to hear the testimony of Mr. Brown concerning his decision, apparently, by his own admission, as the PFO on the ground, to deliberately bypass the department and not to deal with us. I had attributed the problems I had sometimes engaging with Mr. Brown to just the overwhelming pressures of the situation itself.

3. Chertoff spoke about the need to have real-time awareness for supplies moving during a disaster, something that was not required in FEMA’s prior logistics contracts:

I was astonished to see we didn’t have the capability most 21st century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services. I was more surprised to learn the reason for that is because we don’t contract for that directly. We do it through another agency, and that other agency apparently didn’t insert a requirement for such visibility in the contract. We’re going to correct that.

4. He spoke about efforts to improve preparedness coordination with the military and with states:

NORTHCOM is going to be putting some of its planners into our regional offices. We’ve got some people over at NORTHCOM. We are looking into some way to set up a regional preparedness function under our new undersecretary so that we can get closer to the states, in the various regions, a cell of DOD and DHS planners who can work with the state and locals to build that relationship.

5. Chertoff noted that he is planning on making some changes to clarify and simplify the National Response Plan:

I think we need to look at some changes because I think it winds up sometimes being cumbersome. It’s evident to me, for example, that there’s genuine confusion about some of the elements of the plan and when you have to do certain things.

6. Chertoff discussed how he was unhappy with the performance of the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) during the hurricane, because he did not receive a complete picture of information from the field:

I have made clear to [HSOC head Matthew Broderick] while I respect and understand his desire to make sure the information is sufficiently grounded before he gets me, I would rather him reach me earlier with less-perfect information.

7. Sen. Lieberman noted how he didn’t like the “fog of war” analogy that Chertoff has used this week to describe the Katrina response:

“Fog of war” is a term that comes from Clausewitz. I always thought it meant the inability to have what we now call situational awareness on a battlefield because so much was going on. But this is the 21th century and Clausewitz was a long time ago. We have the most extraordinary technological capability and, you know, you should have known. I guess what I want to say in response to all of this is, you had the capability. It wasn’t used well and it wasn’t used early enough.

Overall, an interesting hearing in the best tradition of Congressional oversight.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 16, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

A common confusion in ops centers that are new is whether their role includes alerting, notification, warning, intelligence collection and dessemination or whatever. Here the message traffic was “processed” by the ops center staff but no analytic staff was provided the message traffic to determine significance. Also even if messages were deseminated correctly there was no evidence that the recipients new whether they were responsible to issue ops orders. This could be no-ones fault just the startup problems of a new organization. For example, in notifying FEMA alerting system of a potential nuclear power plant emergency (NRC notifier) the recipients all got the message but none of them were trained to know what to do with it. Result FEMA did nothing. Fortunately, the plant was able to control events and no harm was done. FEMA then realized having a notification center with call-down lists in certain events did not guarantee that the reciepients were trained.

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