Embracing Bureaucracy

President Bush's curious case for more hierarchical disaster response.

The Bush administration's "lessons learned" report on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina came and went with little fanfare in late February, which is unfortunate, because the report-and the administration's overall view of the Katrina debacle-says a lot about its relationship with the federal bureaucracy.

In a press briefing the day the report was released, White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said President Bush "accepted responsibility for the shortcomings in the federal response." But it was the kind of Washington acceptance that mostly found fault with people far lower in the chain of command.

While other investigations have criticized administration officials for being disengaged from the response process, Townsend recommended putting even more distance between the president and federal officials on the scene of disasters. She argued that FEMA Director Michael Brown's problem was that he was more interested in communicating directly with the White House than in following the Homeland Security organizational chart.

"What we need," Townsend said, "is a system that gets the information and the needs of the people in the disaster area up to the decision-maker, who is [Homeland Security] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff, who is responsible for the department. Those operations aren't run out of the White House; they never are."

Typically, federal officials who circumvent bureaucratic rules, regulations and hierarchies in crises are treated as heroes. But the Bush administration's story line on Katrina requires two things: that its move to take away FEMA's independence and place it within the Homeland Security Department not be identified as part of the problem, and that Brown continue to be the bad guy in the response scenario. This, in turn, requires administration officials to make the argument that a sluggish federal response to an emergency could somehow have been improved if one of the key officials involved had placed a higher priority on following the chain of command than on keeping the president updated with key information.

That's a tough case to make about any federal operation, but it's especially hard in the case of FEMA. In the late 1980s, the agency was a bureaucratic backwater, obsessed with preparing for post-nuclear-apocalypse scenarios. Its performance in responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes fell far short of the mark. Later, FEMA was elevated to Cabinet-level status and its director, James Lee Witt, had a direct line to President Clinton. The agency's performance improved dramatically.

Then came the Bush administration, Sept. 11 and the creation of Homeland Security. FEMA found itself buried even further in the bureaucratic hierarchy than it was before Witt came to town. And that's just the way the Bush administration wants things to stay.

In her briefing, Townsend acknowledged the need for "a better structure at the White House" in the area of emergency response, to "cut through the red tape and to referee any needless disputes that arise in the heat of an emergency." Even if you accept the premise that agencies will inevitably let the president down in a crisis, it's hard to see how putting additional layers of management between the White House and key officials on the ground would solve the problem.

Besides that, the president is more than just the referee in this situation. He's the coach-the guy who's accountable for the performance of the agencies that he has led for more than five years now. The administration's Katrina report stated that "the highly bureaucratic supply processes of the federal government were not sufficiently flexible and efficient" during the response, and "failed to leverage the private sector and 21st century advances in supply chain management." Where does the responsibility for that failure lie? Partly, at least, at the feet of the administration that has been in charge of managing and updating the federal procurement system since the day Bush took office.

"When we're fighting a deadly hurricane or a terrorist threat, red tape can no longer be tolerated or accepted," Townsend said. But it wasn't tolerated or accepted at FEMA before. During the Clinton administration, the agency won plaudits from across the political spectrum-including from then-presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000-for its efficient, effective response efforts. If red tape now rules the day, whose fault is that?

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