Timothy Naftali: Department of Homeland Screw-Up

Roundup: Historians' Take

... The response to Katrina thus far indicates two flaws in the Bush administration's thinking about homeland security. The federal government hasn't learned how to plan for a tragedy that demands putting a city on sustained life-support, as opposed to a one-moment-in-time attack that requires recovering the dead and injured from debris and then quickly rebuilding. And DHS appears unwilling to plan for the early use of the U.S. military to cope with a civilian tragedy. Presidential administrations have perennially underestimated the difficulty of the latter task. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy's top aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, thought it would be easy to deploy troops rapidly to defend James Meredith when he was attacked by segregationists while trying to enroll as the University of Mississippi's first black student. "If the President of the United States calls up and says, 'Get your ass down there,' " O'Donnell said, "I would think they'd be on a fucking plane in about five minutes." Kennedy made that call. But then, in spite of O'Donnell's prediction, he watched in frustration as the army dithered for hours before deploying to Oxford, Miss.

The Kennedy administration thus learned that the army must be told in advance what to do. As a matter of law and preference, the military does little training for domestic missions. It balks and mutters about posse comitatus, the legal principle that prohibits the use of the army for law enforcement, and leaves the hard work for the National Guard and state and local authorities. This has made sense most of the time. But in an era when we are supposed to be better prepared for an urban disaster, the tradition of allowing local and state authorities to be overwhelmed before the federal government and military step in should have been rethought.

Located only three hours from New Orleans is Fort Polk, home of the 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit with about 3,000 soldiers. Also at Fort Polk is the Joint Readiness Training Center, which prepares military units to respond rapidly to crises abroad. The 4th Brigade has been training for duty in Afghanistan. Why was it also not ready to take on a local disaster scenario in hurricane season? Or at the least, once the National Hurricane Center predicted that the eye of Katrina would come close to New Orleans, couldn't DHS have deployed the military to help shore up the levees?

And in the event of a WMD attack, when there would likely be no warning at all, what is DHS's contingency plan for moving into position the army or the marines to restore order and sustain life? In the wake of Katrina and the breached levee, the answer seems to be not much of one. In the wake of 9/11, that is worse than incomprehensible. It is unforgivable.

Read entire article at Slate

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Arnold Shcherban - 9/4/2005

Together with any unbiased
man with a speck of honesty, I think Americans have to rethink the entire social-economic structure of this society, when the main burden of unfortune, tragedy and death falls on poor and vulnerable, whether during natural or man-created disasters.

The existing oligarchic, monopolistic structure has to be abandoned in favor
of truly democratic socio-economic
and political system, where the powers
of all kinds do belong to majority.
And it will happen, sooner or later, despite all cosmetic "rethinking" the apologets of the current regime may propose and introduce.

John H. Lederer - 9/3/2005

I think we have to rethink the whole command and control structure.

Right now the design is that local government tells teh state whart is needed. The state had its own military, the State Guard, that it controls. If the emergency exceeds the abilities of teh state government, the government requests FEMA help. The Governor of the state can also request federal troops, though by law, they casn only have a very limited role in law enforcement.

This pyramid puts a lot of responsibility on state and local government. What happens when stae and local government isn't very good?

I don't want to knock anyone, but when the states are ranked by quality of government, Louisiana hears an echo from the bottom a lot sooner than the top. New Orleans doesn't get an echo from the bottom because it is there.

Even with good local and state government the command chain is far too long. Supposedly a town that needs help is going to have his need move up through the state to FEMA and down from FEMA to some guy who can help. People regard this as idiocy and they short citcuit the system. The short circuit needs to be designed in.

I think there would be a lot of reluctance to have the military in charge but that may be what is needed. Moreover, they need to be in charge prior to the disaster occurring if that is possible -- in this case Bush pro\actively declared NO a disaster area before the storm hit in order to activate FEMA in advance -- a step that if it accomplished anything makes one quail with the thought of what might have happened "normally".