You can learn a lot about what’s on someone’s mind by looking at his priorities. For example, during the famous “military phase” of the Iraq invasion (March 20-May 1 2003), U.S. troops moved quickly to secure oil fields, rip up the floor mosaic depicting George H.W. Bush in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel (visitors had stepped on Poppy’s face), and haul down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square (staged so that in photos it would appear Iraqis were doing the hauling). They did these things, of course, because these were priorities for the Commander in Chief.

What were the troops not ordered to do? They were not ordered to secure: stockpiles of conventional weapons and explosives; the old nuclear research facilities at Tuwaitha; the offices of the Military Industrialization Commission, where any records of WMDs would likely have been kept; the Iraq National Museum; and many other facilities that were looted and destroyed while U.S. troops looked on. (And note that I do not blame the troops for this. I blame whoever issued the orders.)

What does this tell us about the Bush Administration’s priorities? It tells us that oil and personal revenge were priorities; WMDs and conventional weapons that might have — hell, probably did — fall into the hands of terrorists were not priorities. Finding those pesky WMDs didn’t become a priority until later, when their absence was becoming a political liability for the Bushies.

And what does it tell us about priorities that, before the invasion, the White House was gung ho about handing out contracts to their good buddies in the defense industry, but forgot to plan for an occupation at all? I’m sure I don’t have to explain what this says about priorities.

For that matter, when President Bush finally began to focus on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, one of his first acts was to suspend the Davis Bacon Act, so that his contractor buddies wouldn’t have to bother about paying prevailing wages to workers. After he was persuaded to reverse the suspension he seems to have lost interest in the Gulf Coast entirely except as an occasional photo op backdrop. If he couldn’t exploit Katrina to devalue labor, the Gulf just wasn’t a priority.

The priority thing came to mind when I read this editorial in today’s Washington Post:

THE BUSH administration has pushed aggressively for expanded surveillance powers, military commissions and rough interrogation techniques. When it comes to fighting the war on terrorism, just about anything goes. Except, that is, those routine steps with no civil liberties implications at all that might significantly interrupt terrorism — such as, say, reading the mail of convicted terrorists housed in American prisons. The federal Bureau of Prisons, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote, “does not read all the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its mail monitoring lists.” It is also “unable to effectively monitor high-risk inmates’ verbal communications,” including phone calls. So while the administration won’t reveal the circumstances under which it spies on innocent Americans, the communications of imprisoned terrorists, at least, appear sadly secure.


This is not a hypothetical problem. Jailed terrorists and organized-crime figures try to communicate with confederates outside of prison walls. Three inmates involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, while housed at the federal government’s highest-security prison, managed to exchange around 90 letters with Islamist extremists between 2002 and 2004, including with terrorists in Spain who were planning attacks there. Just last month, federal prosecutors accused a drug lord at the same facility of running a huge distribution network in Los Angeles using coded conversations and messages. Imprisoned people can direct major crimes from behind bars.

The mail isn’t scrutinized, the editorial continues, because there aren’t enough translators available to read it, and those officers who do take a look at the mail are not trained to recognize suspicious content.

This doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem. It requires only the allocation of resources to do the job. Somehow, it fell way down the White House priority list, which suggests to me that gathering intelligence on terrorism is not a high priority. Expanding executive power is the priority.

Here’s another one: What does it tell us that Congress has set aside $20 million for an Iraq victory party? This $20 million is in the 2007 budget. The 2007 budget cuts medical and prosthetic research — including research to improve treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, blast-related injuries and Gulf War related illness — by $13 million.

Priorities, anyone?

The Quintessential Bush

Anne Kornblut and David Stout in today’s New York Times:

On the eve of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush returned to the devastated Gulf Coast today promising to continue federal assistance, and eagerly pointing out signs of progress.

“It’s amazing, isn’t?” he told a gathering under a sweltering sun. “It’s amazing what the world looked like then and what it looks like now.”…

… Mr. Bush delivered his remarks at an intersection in a working-class Biloxi neighborhood against a carefully orchestrated backdrop of neatly reconstructed homes. Just a few feet out of camera range stood gutted houses with wires dangling from interior ceilings. A tattered piece of crime scene tape hung from a tree in the field where Mr. Bush spoke. A toilet seat lay on its side in the grass.

Kinda sums it all up, don’t it?

Mr. Bush praised the optimism and grit of the people of Mississippi, and he reaffirmed his belief in neighborly cooperation as well as government help. “A year ago, I committed our federal government to help you,” he said. “I said we have a duty to help the local people recover and rebuild. I meant what I said.”

For truly effective rebuilding, he went on, “there has to be a partnership with the federal government and the state and local governments. Here’s my attitude about the partnership. You know better than the people in Washington the needs of your communities. I’d rather listen to local mayors and county commissioners than folks sitting in Washington, D.C., about what this part of Mississippi wants.”

That sounds grand, but the President’s attitude about “partnership” seems to me to resemble King George III’s relationship with his North American colonies. As I wrote here, the feds wrote the big contracts for cleanup, often passing up perfectly good local companies in favor of businesses with the right political connections. Jordan Green at CounterPunch provides some examples:

Other instances of fraud and overcharging appear to have taken place because the government awarded advance contracts to large, out-of-state companies that had little notion of how to do business in areas hit by the hurricane.

Immediately after Katrina struck the Gulf, Paul Adams, a Yazoo City, Miss. businessman who specialized in setting up temporary classrooms, called his suppliers and the Mississippi Department of Education, anticipating that students would be displaced. Told by the department that FEMA would supply temporary trailers to house the students, he eventually discovered that the Army Corps of Engineers was obligated to give the work to Akima, an Alaska native corporation.

Obligated is an interesting word, wouldn’t you say?

Adams alleges in a lawsuit that he tracked down 450 temporary classrooms, and submitted a bid to Akima as a subcontractor, which in turn used the information to win a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers. Later Akima Senior Project Manager Al Cialone went to Florida to inspect the trailers and then purchased them directly, cutting Adams out of the deal, according to the lawsuit.

The deal troubled the GAO. It reported to Congress in May that “the Corps accepted Akima’s proposed price of $39.5 million although it had information that the cost for the classrooms was significantly less than what Akima was charging. … We believe the Corps could have, but failed to, negotiate a lower price.”

David Machado, a staff engineer with Necaise Brothers Construction Co. in Gulfport, Miss., also expressed frustration about getting cut out of reconstruction work in his home state in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee.

“We have all felt the injustice,” he said. “From truck drivers to chainsaw operators, we have had to scrape and claw to be afforded an opportunity to rebuild the very place we call home.”

Necaise Brothers is one of about a half-dozen subcontractors that have filed suit against AshBritt, complaining that the politically connected Florida company withheld payment or “looted” work from smaller firms. AshBritt has been sued for a total of at least $9.5 million by companies that have crossed its path in the hurricane reconstruction zone along the coast of Mississippi. Perhaps that should come as no surprise considering that the company landed contracts valued at more than half a billion dollars from the Army Corps of Engineers between September 2005 and March 2006.

State and local governments have been criticized for failing to come up with timely plans, and I don’t doubt some of that criticism is justified. But it’s also true that the feds rejected some plans for being too expensive and tossed them back to the locals for revision. Apparently the locals are supposed to guess what their spending limits are. Further, requests for funds must creep through a bureaucratic labyrinth before reaching someone who can actually make a decision. This is not partnership. The feds are treating state and local governments as supplicants, not partners.

Some say the way to get around government bureaucracy is to privatize disaster recovery. But there’s a problem with that, too. Naomi Klein writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

… it’s time to take a look at where the privatization of disaster began, and where it will inevitably lead.

The first step was the government’s abdication of its core responsibility to protect the population from disasters. Under the Bush administration, whole sectors of the government, and particularly the Department of Homeland Security, have been turned into glorified temp agencies, with essential functions contracted out to private companies. The idea is that entrepreneurs, driven by the profit motive, are always more efficient than government.

We saw the results in New Orleans: Washington was weak and incompetent in part because its emergency management experts had fled to the private sector and its technology and infrastructure had become positively retro. In a crisis, government looks frighteningly inept ( “doing a heckuva job”) while the private sector can seem modern and competent, at least by comparison.

In truth, when it comes to reconstruction, contractors are hardly wizards. “Where has all the money gone?” ask desperate people from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf Coast. One place a great deal of it has gone is into major capital expenditures for the private corporations. Largely under the public radar, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on privatized disaster-response infrastructure: the Shaw Group’s new state-of-the-art Baton Rouge headquarters, Bechtel’s battalions of earthmoving equipment, Blackwater USA’s 6,000-acre campus in North Carolina (complete with paramilitary training camp and 6,000-foot runway).

This state within a state has been built almost exclusively with money from public contracts, yet it is all privately owned. Taxpayers have absolutely no control over it.

These companies provide their services to the public free of charge as long as Congress is paying their bills. But Klein argues that we are moving in the direction of “user pays” disasters, for reasons she outlines in her Los Angeles Times op ed. (In the future, if you are going to be stuck on a roof during a flood, be sure to have a credit card to pay for the helicopter ride.)

Some on the Right argue that the feds should have no role at all in recovery. This fellow says,

New Orleans will be re-built if the people of New Orleans want to re-build it. And if they do it themselves it will be a New Orleans they can be proud of and love. It will be their New Orleans.

If, on the other hand, they wait around for someone else to re-build their city for them, it won’t be the New Orleans they loved. It will belong to somebody else. And New Orleans will be dead.

And, of course, the fault with his reasoning is that New Orleans is a poor city in a poor state and lacks the money and resources to rebuild. But I believe it would have been better for everyone if the feds had just handed the reconstruction money appropriated by Congress to the local governments of the Gulf Coast and let them get on with rebuilding any way they wanted, with local companies and labor. Sure a lot of the money would have been siphoned off by corruption, but that happened, anyway. At least local corruption would have kept the money local; some of the pilfered profits would have been spent locally, putting more money into circulation in the communities. They’ve got enough dirty money in Washington already.

Instead, as Jennifer Moses writes in today’s Washington Post, the people of the Gulf have had to hurry up and wait.

It is a source of unending perplexity in Louisiana that so far America has spent some $320 billion in Iraq for nation-building, whereas in New Orleans, homeowners have so far seen precisely zero.

Not that there isn’t talk. A federally funded program with the Disneyfied name of “The Road Home” is due to start distributing thousands of dollars to uninsured homeowners . . . eventually. Additional billions have been poured into the coffers of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose design flaws caused the city’s levees to rupture in the first place, and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, according to a just-released report, awarded more than 70 percent of its contracts through a no-bid or limited-bid process.

People with flood insurance or enough of their own money are rebuilding; those without, aren’t.

Even for those brave souls who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt their homes with sweat equity, a larger problem remains: infrastructure. All but a handful of public schools are shuttered; the hospitals are so badly crippled that in case of an emergency most people assume they’ll need to drive to Baton Rouge; the courts have gone from limping along to entirely dysfunctional; the electric grid is so fragile that regular power outages are a non-event; and in many parts of town, water lines still haven’t been laid. Firefighters: Who needs ’em? Police? Oh, well.

According to Collette Creppell, chief architect at Tulane University and a former New Orleans city planner, ever since President Bush faced the nation from Jackson Square a year ago and declared that “the work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” New Orleanians have been holding their breath, waiting for a construction boom. But without delivery of basic services, they might as well wait until doomsday.

Individuals stuck in a limbo of waiting are wearing down from worry and depression. Yet they struggle to put their lives back together as best they can. Tony Freemantle writes in the Houston Chronicle:

The Orleans Parish coroner says the suicide rate in the city, with half the pre-storm population, has tripled. Dentists, the few that are left in the city, are reporting an alarming number of people showing up with grooved or chipped teeth, a telltale sign of grinding. People admit to drinking more, taking more drugs. The billions of dollars promised by the government for rebuilding has yet to translate into billions in building.

But for those who have chosen to cast their lot with its uncertain future, it is also a defiant city.

People freely admit to the psychological trauma they suffered, and are suffering still. They joke about suffering from “Katrina Brain” and the need for antidepressants or drink to combat it. They say things like, “I’ll never get over it.”

But they do so with sweat dripping from their brows as they haul drywall and rusted washing machines onto the sidewalk. They stand in their sweltering, gutted houses and reaffirm their commitment to their neighborhood, their city, their roots.

The American people must realize we are all New Orleanians. New Orleans is our city; the Gulf Coast is our coast. Failure or prosperity in the Gulf impacts all of us. Those who can’t feel empathy should be reminded that a swath of failed communities running across four states is an unproductive swath, a swath not adding to national wealth, a swath that will continue to be a drain on the nation’s resources. We, the People have a financial interest — a patriotic interest, even — in rebuilding the Gulf.

The President is visiting New Orleans today to participate in some events artfully staged to make him look good. They’ll set him up somewhere that looks presentable, and he’ll make little speeches about commitment and grit and that people need to be patient — rhetoric as empty as Karen Hughes’s head, and quintessential Bush. I wonder if he’ll bother to go through this charade again next year, or if (with no midterm election looming) he’ll just blow it all off.

Update: Did you know the U.S. is receiving foreign aid to help with Gulf reconstruction?

FEMA Follies; or, Adventures with the Crony Fairy

President Bush was back in New Orleans yesterday, getting his picture taken with disadvantaged black people. It was his eleventh photo-op trip to the Gulf Coast since Katrina.

Bush stopped at a modest bungalow restored by volunteers, situated on a Ninth Ward street still littered with debris and overgrown with weeds. White government trailers that are the main housing for the displaced sat in many front yards. …

… From Williams’ home, Bush’s motorcade took him to a nearby large vacant lot where Habitat for Humanity is building 81 new homes for New Orleans musicians.

Bush, clad in casual blue pants and checked shirt, donned work gloves and a tool pouch as he wandered around the construction site chatting with workers. The president, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin helped raise roof frames onto one house.

Let me get this straight — the politicians want people to know that they’re working hard to restore New Orleans, so they get themselves photographed alongside volunteers? Is that ’cause the government ain’t doin’ shit? So what do we need the politicians for, exactly?

Meanwhile, the Senate spent seven months investigating FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina and came to the brilliant conclusion that the agency should be scrapped. Sort of. Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times,

Just weeks before the 2006 hurricane season officially begins June 1, a Senate committee on Thursday called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be dismantled and reconstituted as a new, stronger agency within Homeland Security.

Many House members, meanwhile, are pushing to restore FEMA to its pre-2003 status as an independent agency, this time with Cabinet rank and additional funding muscle.

So the Senate and the House disagree, and naturally the White House is resisting any big changes at all.

And as President Bush made his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since the storm hit Aug. 29, the White House urged a strengthening — but no reshuffling — of current operations.

“Now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes,” said Frances F. Townsend, the president’s domestic security advisor, who traveled with Bush to Louisiana and Mississippi on Thursday.

I can’t find an exact quote, but yesterday the MSNBC news team shoved a microphone at Bush’s face and asked for his reaction to the Senate’s FEMA suggestion. He said something to the effect that the White House was conducting its own FEMA investigation, and he thought the answer to the problem was making FEMA work better.

Translation: The Bush Administration hasn’t done a dadblamed thing to see to it federal agencies are better prepared for hurricane season than they were last year.

I wish someone would have pressed him to explain what he has done, personally, to improve the problems in our disaster preparedness response. Has he considered any options for reorganizing FEMA and Homeland Security? Did he demand progress reports from FEMA managers showing what measures they are taking to straighten up their act? Has he rattled any cages? Kicked any butts, other than Michael Brown’s? In fact, other than replacing Brown, has any tangible action been taken by the White House at all lo these many months?

Expect the White House to stonewall whatever reform the House and Senate eventually agree on. Any major overhaul of FEMA would be an admission that the original White House organization chart for FEMA was flawed, a mistake. And you know how it is … Bushies don’t make mistakes.

Joe Lieberman was one of the senators behind the proposal to overhaul FEMA but keep it within Homeland Security (he had a lot to do with the original Homeland Security Department proposal, so I guess Holy Joe can’t admit mistakes, either). Bill Walsh of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Lieberman complained of White House stonewalling of the investigation —

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., accused the White House on Thursday of not only failing to cooperate with the Senate’s Hurricane Katrina investigation, but of telling key federal agencies not to turn over documents that he said could have shed light on the botched federal response to the nation’s worst natural disaster. …

… in a 43-page addendum to the committee’s report, Lieberman described a cat-and-mouse game between committee members and White House lawyers over setting up interviews and getting critical documents.

“In too many instances, we faced agencies and departments that saw our efforts as a nuisance — and their response as up to their discretion,” Lieberman wrote. “And the worst offender was the entity that should have stood above the fray and worked hardest with the committee to uncover the government’s failings in Katrina: the White House.”

The White House responded, in effect, that they cooperated a whole bunch and Joe Lieberman is a poopyhead.

Back to the Senate — what the newspapers are calling the Lieberman-Collins proposal calls for FEMA to be dismantled and replaced by a new agency, to be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority. NPRA would communicate directly with the President during a crisis — it’s implied that Michael Brown couldn’t do that because he had to go through NHS director Chertoff — and any big cuts to the budget or staff would have to be approved by Congress. The NPRA would remain under the Department of National Security umbrella, however.

Back to Johanna Neuman

Many in the House, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Katrina that issued its report in February, favor making FEMA a separate agency, with Cabinet rank. …

… In the Senate, many Democrats — including Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who were on the panel that issued the report Thursday — also want FEMA to stand alone, disagreeing with the Collins-Lieberman approach of taking it apart and putting it back together within Homeland Security.

“Unless FEMA has a direct line to the president, the people of Hawaii and the nation are at risk,” Akaka said in a statement. “FEMA must be restored as an independent agency.”

Just to make it all more fun, some Republican congressional leaders, such as Frist in the Senate and Hastert in the House, are making noises that they plan to stick with what the White House wants, whatever that is.

Conclusion: Nothing’s going to happen with FEMA this year, unless a major hurricane hits Virginia and wipes out the DHS headquarters.

Paul Krugman is not hopeful, either. He writes that the Lieberman-Collins proposal would change the agency’s name but not get to the root of what’s wrong with it.

The U.S. government is being stalked by an invisible bandit, the Crony Fairy, who visits key agencies by dead of night, snatches away qualified people and replaces them with unqualified political appointees. There’s no way to catch or stop the Crony Fairy, so our only hope is to change the agencies’ names. That way she might get confused, and leave our government able to function. …

… The [Senate] report points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency “had been operating at a more than 15 percent staff-vacancy rate for over a year before Katrina struck” — that means many of the people who knew what they were doing had left. And it adds that “FEMA’s senior political appointees … had little or no prior relevant emergency-management experience.”

But the report says nothing about what caused the qualified people to leave and who appointed unqualified people to take their place. There’s no hint that, say, President Bush might have had any role. So those political appointees must have been installed by the Crony Fairy.


The Senate proposal calls for the new agency to be staffed by professionals with experience in crisis management. “I guess it’s impossible to select qualified people to run FEMA,” writes Krugman. “If you try, the Crony Fairy will spirit them away and replace them with Michael Brown. But she might not know her way to N.P.R.A.”

Krugman gives us a history of FEMA —

In the early 1990’s, FEMA’s reputation was as bad as it is today. It was a dumping ground for political cronies, headed by a man whose only apparent qualification for the job was that he was a close friend of the first President Bush’s chief of staff. FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 perfectly foreshadowed Katrina: the agency took three days to arrive on the scene, and when it did, it proved utterly incompetent.

Many people thought that FEMA was a lost cause. But Bill Clinton proved them wrong. He appointed qualified people to lead the agency and gave them leeway to hire other qualified people, and within a year FEMA’s morale and performance had soared. For the rest of the Clinton years, FEMA was among the most highly regarded agencies in the federal government.

What happened to that reputation? The answer, of course, is that the second President Bush returned to his father’s practices. Once again, FEMA became a dumping ground for cronies, and many of the good people who had come in during the Clinton years left. It took only a few years to transform one of the best agencies in the U.S. government into what Senator Susan Collins calls “a shambles and beyond repair.”

In other words, the Crony Fairy is named George W. Bush.

Heck of a Job, All Around

Be sure to read Part II of the Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser report on the DHS in WaPo. Today they focus on the turf wars between Michael Brown at FEMA and the rest of the Washington establishment. Jaw-dropping stuff. A sample:

Long before his e-mails portrayed a befuddled bureaucrat who fretted about restaurant reservations and his Nordstrom wardrobe while New Orleans drowned, he [Michael Brown] was known at DHS as a fierce turf warrior whose griping about FEMA’s role alienated superiors and marginalized his agency.

“The biggest danger in the department was tribalism,” said Bruce M. Lawlor, Ridge’s initial chief of staff, “and FEMA was the number one tribe.”

In many ways, Brown is a cautionary tale of what can happen to Washington officials who make mistakes in the public eye after making enemies behind the scenes. Brown spent two years trying to use his contacts with White House officials to undercut DHS, but the White House rarely backed him, and DHS leaders responded by shifting FEMA’s responsibilities and resources to more cooperative agencies.

Ridge stripped FEMA’s power over billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants as well as the creation of a national disaster response plan. Most of the agency’s top staff quit. And after he arrived at DHS in February, Chertoff decided to take away the rest of FEMA’s preparedness duties.

Brown was actually right about many things, but the whole Bush bureaucracy is a joke. Chertoff is just as clueless as Brown is; possibly more so. And it is obvious hardly anyone in Washington took disaster preparedness seriously. It was all about power and politics to them.

Running Government Like a Corporation

Susan B. Glasser’s and Michael Grunwald’s Washington Post article about the ongoing comedy of errors that is the Department of Homeland Securityis a fun read. Did you know that the DHS has its own official typeface? It also has an official color scheme (cool gray, red and hints of “punched-up” blue), a nifty focus-group-tested seal and lapel pins for every employee.

What is doesn’t have is focus, organization, or a clue.

Here’s a quickie history: You may remember that President Bush was against formation of a DHS before he was for it. There had been talk of a DHS before September 11. The Hart-Rudman commission, which issued a final report in January 2001 (the WaPo article says May, but it was January), recommended a cabinet-level DHS and several other reforms that Bush and Cheney, upon ascending to office, promptly kneecapped. After 9/11 Bush had announced creation of an Office of Homeland Security, headed by Tom Ridge, who would work out of the West Wing and report only to the President. As far as Bush was concerned, the biggest argument in favor of this arrangement was that as a presidential aide Ridge was not required to testify to Congress. For this reason, Bush resisted suggestions that Ridge’s position be cabinet level.

But Democrats in Congress were pushing for a Department of Homeland Security instead of an Office. “On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties were upset by Bush’s refusal to let Ridge testify as a presidential aide,” write Glasser and Grunwald. “and Lieberman’s bill to create a new department was gaining momentum. While many Republicans were leery about a vast new bureaucracy, they did not want to cede the homeland security issue to the Democrats.” So early in 2002, even as Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans continued to speak out against formation of the department, White House staffers began to plot the president’s reversal. Glasser and Grunwald:

In the White House bunker where Cheney had waited out the Sept. 11 attacks, a select group of policy aides had been secretly commissioned to plot the administration’s about-face.

They were called together in April by White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. — five mid-level staffers known as the “Gang of Five,” or as they liked to call themselves, the “G-5.” Two worked for Ridge — Lawlor and Richard A. Falkenrath, a security expert from Harvard — and Card sent his deputy Joel D. Kaplan, associate counsel Brad Berenson and deputy budget director Mark W. Everson.

As near as I can determine, none of these people had any hands-on experience working in the bureaucracies they were meeting to overhaul. Indeed, they didn’t seem to have a whole lot of experience working in any big bureaucracy.

Several times a week, the G-5 met with a group of principals, including Card, Ridge, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. and Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. On poster boards, they listed all the agencies that might make sense in the department. “The overriding guidance,” Lawlor recalled, “was that everything was on the table for consideration.”

This anecdote nicely illustrates the expertise and professionalism of the DHS crew:

Some of the decisions were almost random. Falkenrath thought it would be nice to give the new department a research lab that could bring cutting-edge research to homeland security problems. He called up a friend and asked which of the three Department of Energy labs would work. “He goes, ‘Livermore.’ And I’m like, ‘All right. See you later.’ Click,” Falkenrath told historians from the Naval Postgraduate School. He did not realize that he had just decided to give the new department a thermonuclear weapon simulator, among other highly sensitive assets of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In June of 2002 Bush announced the formation of DHS. The White House crew had been working on the plan for all of six months.

On Capitol Hill, Bush’s allies were left tongue-tied by his abrupt shift. In late May the White House had pushed Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to oppose Lieberman’s bill. Now, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) told Lieberman: “I’ve been having a great time explaining my enthusiastic support for a proposition I voted against two weeks ago.”

The next step was all Karl Rove. Harold Meyerson wrote in WaPo (September 21, 2005),

In the fall of 2002, as the legislation establishing the DHS was wending its way through Congress, Rove had a Rovean idea: Embed some extraneous, ideological criteria in the bill — criteria that the Democrats would obviously oppose — and then campaign against those Democrats for being soft on homeland security. Which is why one day the bill suddenly contained language mandating that the unionized federal employees at the agencies being merged into DHS would henceforth be non-union. Predictably, the Democrats squawked, and predictably, the Republicans took out after a southern Democratic senator up for reelection — Georgia’s Max Cleland, who’d lost an arm and both legs while fighting in Vietnam — as indifferent to protecting our nation. Cleland was defeated.

To this day, Bush likes to speechify that Democrats had been opposed to DHS, implying that they are “weak” on homeland security, leaving out the detail that DHS had been primarily their idea to begin with.

But let’s continue — once the plan was made public, the amateurs who had drawn up the plans began to hear from the professionals that it wouldn’t work.

Falkenrath was barraged by Hill staffers with questions he could not answer: If the Immigration and Naturalization Service was moving to the new department, why were immigration judges staying at the Justice Department? Falkenrath did not know there were immigration judges. “Every one of these staffers had some little angle on something that we hadn’t thought of,” he said. “I was like, ‘We better go figure out what we’ve missed here.’ ”

Inside the White House, some aides were appalled by the specter of “a group of people who really didn’t know a whole lot about the boxes they were moving around,” as one put it. White House cybersecurity czar Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism chief sidelined by Bush after urging more decisive action against al Qaeda before Sept. 11, blasted Ridge’s office with a memo about the new department’s design flaws, warning that the failure to include a policy office would leave the secretary helpless to control its independent fiefdoms.

“Creating a significant policy shop is like Bureaucracy 101,” said Clarke deputy Roger Cressey. “We never heard anything back.”

And, as the DHS prepared to go into operation, political considerations continued to trump security considerations.

One stark example was the White House’s blockade of a Ridge-supported plan to secure large chemical plants. After Sept. 11, Whitman had worked with Ridge on a modest effort to require high-risk plants — especially the 123 factories where a toxic release could endanger at least 1 million people — to enhance security. But industry groups warned Bush political adviser Karl Rove that giving new regulatory power to the Environmental Protection Agency would be a disaster.

“We have a similar set of concerns,” Rove wrote to the president of BP Amoco Chemical Co.

In an interagency meeting shortly before DHS’s birth, White House budget official Philip J. Perry, who also happens to be Cheney’s son-in-law, declared the Ridge-Whitman plan dead.

The White House continued to undermine the DHS.

On Jan. 24, 2003, Ridge was sworn in as the first secretary of homeland security; Bush hailed him as a “superb leader who has my confidence.” Four days later, Ridge learned from the president’s State of the Union address that a new intelligence center for tracking terrorists — which he had expected to be the hub of DHS’s dot-connecting efforts — would not be controlled by DHS.

Ridge and his aides thought the center was one of the key reasons the department had been created, to prevent the coordination failures that helped produce Sept. 11. Not only had the White House undercut Ridge, it also let him find out about his defeat on television.

Bush didn’t even want the new Department to have its offices in Washington.

The first battle over DHS came when the White House tried to exile it from Washington. Initially, Daniels proposed to let cities around the country bid to host the new department as a cost-saving measure. Then the White House tried to park DHS outside the Beltway in Chantilly.

Just before the department’s official March 1 start date, the Chantilly deal fell through and DHS ended up in a decrepit Navy complex on Nebraska Avenue in Upper Northwest, several miles from the rest of federal Washington. Top DHS officials had to share desks in a “gulag-like” hangar at Building 3; the White House initially told them it was temporary quarters until a new “campus” was commissioned. But the talk of a new home for the department quickly stopped.

While everybody seems to think Tom Ridge is a lovely man, he lacked the mangerial skill to pull the behemouth of a department together. But he tried hard to pull together a regional plan for DHS.

From his first day at DHS, Ridge pushed to create what he called “mini-me’s,” eight regional directors who would manage the department’s assets in their areas during a crisis. It was Ridge’s one major effort to put his own organizational stamp on DHS, and it was meant to ensure better preparedness for a disaster, the thinking being that “you can’t plan a response in Los Angeles out of Washington, D.C.,” Lawlor said. With hurricanes in mind, Ridge wanted one region to have headquarters in New Orleans.

Some of DHS’s own managers, including Michael Brown of FEMA, complained about this idea. Brown actually went over Ridge’s head and complained to the White House. The White House would eventually kill the plan.

Tom Ridge resigned at the end of Bush’s first term, and Michael Chertoff took his place. And the rest is, well, Katrina. Glasser and Grunwald promise another installment of this saga tomorrow — FEMA’s war on DHS.

Update: I ought to explain the title — I started to write about the fact that DHS reminds me of corporations I used to work for — all slick PR, but total chaos beneath the surface. But the corporations had the benefit of enough long-term employees who knew the ropes that the companies were able to stumble along in spite of gross mismanagement.

Heck of a Job

Email to Michael Brown:

“Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical. Here some things you might not know. Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water. Hundreds still being rescued from homes.

“The dying patients at the DMAT (disaster medical assistance team) tent being medivac. Estimates are many will die within hours. Evacuation in process. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome, plans in works to address the critical need.

“FEMA staff is OK and holding own. DMAT staff working in deplorable conditions. The sooner we can get the medical patients out, the sooner we can get them out.

“Phone connectivity impossible.” – Marty Bahamonde, FEMA regional director, to Brown, describing the situation in New Orleans on Aug. 31.

Michael Brown’s response:

“Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”