Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 27, 2006

Thoughts on the Senate’s Katrina report

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on April 27, 2006

I’ve now read through the partial set of documents that were posted online today as part of the Senate HSGAC’s Katrina report (the full report will be out next Tuesday).

Given the incomplete nature of today’s documents, I’m somewhat reluctant to make final judgments about the report. But my initial reaction is a sense of disappointment in the report. It focuses significantly on bureaucratic issues related to the nation’s preparedness and response challenges, to the detriment of a consideration of the systemic and cultural reasons for the multiple failures in the response to Katrina. The House’s report on Katrina, released in February, takes much more of this latter approach, although it lacked any recommendations that derived from these findings. Perhaps the optimal analysis can be found in the synthesis of the two reports.

There are many good ideas in the Senate’s report; for example, the proposal to merge the HSOC, NRCC, and the IIMG into a new National Operations Center. But for the most part, the ideas in the report are necessary but not sufficient. Unaccompanied by transformative changes in the cultural and systemic approaches to preparedness and response, there’s a risk that they could simply become org chart reshufflings, and little more.

Take, for example, the headline proposal of the day: the abolishment of FEMA and the creation of a new National Preparedness and Response Authority (NPRA). This proposal basically amounts to turning back the clock to the period of time between the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and the implementation of the DHS second-stage review in 2005, when preparedness and response were (at least in theory) merged into a single Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Directorate. The new proposal puts this neo-EPR directorate as a standalone agency within DHS (like the Coast Guard and the Secret Service), and creates a direct line of authority to the President during a crisis, bypassing the DHS Secretary, but this still feels like the same old FEMA in new packaging, and I don’t think that it would address the root causes of dysfunctionality in the preparedness and response system, which have much more to do with the decision-making protocols, chains of communication, and incentive structures at the individual level than with the org chart du jour.

The most interesting document of the day is Sen. Lieberman’s additional views to the report, which provides a full record of the White House’s stonewalling and footdragging in responding to the Committee for this report. Lieberman writes:

There are matters that we could not fully explore because of agency and Administration recalcitrance and, in some cases, intransigence. We don’t know what we don’t know – for example, as a result of the Justice Department’s failure to produce large volumes of what the Committee had requested. But one thing we do know is that because we were denied the opportunity to fully explore the role the White House played in preparing for and responding to Katrina, we have little insight into how the President and his staff monitored, managed and directed the government’s disaster preparedness in the post-9/11 world, how they coordinated the rest of the federal bureaucracy in response to Katrina, or how leadership was exercised by the only entity in the federal government with the authority to order all the others to act. Without this information, our investigation necessarily lacked the ability to fully and fairly analyze and assess a critical element of the response to Katrina.

Lieberman goes on in the report to provide a detailed account of this recalcitrance, noting that when the White House did provide documents, they were typically from publicly-available sources (e.g. the White House’s website) or other agencies; and, as has been previously reported, accusing the White House of encouraging other agencies not to respond to requests for information related to their interactions with it.

This is shameful. As I wrote three months ago:

The American people deserve a full and complete answer to the question of what happened during the response to Katrina – not as ammunition for partisan games, but because if we don’t find out the whole and complete truth, we’re going to be less prepared the next time we’re hit, whether it be by a hurricane or a dirty bomb. That fact should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about national security and preparedness.

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