Chimpy’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Frances Fragos Townsend, gave a briefing today on her fabulous report on the Bush Assministration’s woeful response to Hurricane Katrina. It was obvious from the get-go that Townsend’s role was to defect blame, wherever possible, from Chimpy and Chertoff towards Brownie.
Q I had a question. After the storm, Louisiana Governor Blanco and President Bush argued for several days about the control of the military in Louisiana, delaying the arrival of federal troops for I think it was five or six days until after the storm. How does your recommendation for a more aggressive use of federal troops balance the need for state sovereignty?
MS. TOWNSEND: I’m not sure that I accept your recitation of the facts, frankly. But let me address the integrated use of the military because that’s really the lesson learned, and the recommendation goes to that.
Q The GAO said the number one problem was a lack of reporting from the principal federal officer to the White House. There was too much bureaucracy within DHS, especially between FEMA Director Brown and Secretary Chertoff. Past FEMA Directors, successful ones who were deployed in other disasters say that’s the number one problem right now. Why don’t you address that here?
MS. TOWNSEND: I’m not sure that I agree with you. One of the things we looked at, and you’ll see in the report is, what is the authority of the principal federal officer, and making sure that they have the authority to meet their mission requirement. We know from Director Brown’s testimony that Secretary Chertoff reached out for him a number of times. It wasn’t that there was bureaucracy between them, it was that he didn’t — he’s testified that he didn’t want to deal with the Secretary.
Q Looking at the recommendations for the Department of Homeland Security itself to implement, they’re extensive, and there’s a deadline for many of them of the 1st of June. Given that Secretary Chertoff’s behavior has been described as disengaged, and his department’s performance was described as alarming and non-functional by some of the senators, is a Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Chertoff one in which you can have confidence to get this work done by the 1st of June?
MS. TOWNSEND: Secretary Chertoff enjoys the confidence of the President. He has been a tremendous partner. And I will tell you, in coming to the 125 recommendations, the Secretary, personally, and his department played a large role in working with us to identify the shortfalls and what we need to work on.
Q Fran, in sort of trying to mediate disputes, insofar as we already know that Mr. Brown and Mr. Chertoff weren’t exactly on the same page at times, why wasn’t the White House able to mediate that back then? Why create a new structure now looking forward, as opposed to having settled it at the time?
MS. TOWNSEND: Well, even as Mr. Brown said, Secretary Card told him to go back to Secretary Chertoff. And so I think it’s pretty clear — I would use the analogy, oftentimes there is communication — the President will reach out to a combatant commander, for example, out in the field and have a conversation. The combatant commander understands very well that’s not interference in the chain of command. The President oftentimes wants to have a conversation to make sure he gets additional facts or an understanding. And in the United States military, they know very well what their chain of command is up through the Secretary of Defense, and wouldn’t consider that being abrogated.
It wasn’t any different here. Michael Brown chose not to follow his chain of command. The can’t happen again. That has to be very clear. Secretary Chertoff has taken — accepted responsibility for the actions of his department, and we are committed to ensuring that we have a qualified, competent and committed Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that respects and responds to the chain of command.
Townsend also fielded a couple of questions regarding the UAE ports deal, but not without getting all snippy about it.
Q On page 11 of the 9/11 Commission’s report that you’re undoubtedly familiar with, it says, “From 1999 through early 2001, the United States pressed the United Arab Emirates, one of the Taliban’s only travel and financial outlets to the outside world, to break off ties and enforce sanctions. These efforts achieved little before 9/11.” And my question: Why should we now give this nation any control of our ports, which so refused to help in stopping a worse killing of Americans than at Pearl Harbor?
MS. TOWNSEND: There is no question that their performance has changed since 2001 in the war on terror. They have been critical allies in Afghanistan. They have been critical allies in fighting the financial war against terror. They’ve been critical allies in terms of our military-to-military relationship, as General Pace has talked about.
I don’t take issue with the 9/11 Commission’s characterization prior to September 11th, but I will tell you, prior to September 11th, Pakistan also recognized the Taliban. They, too, are now a critical ally in the war on terror, without whose support we would not have enjoyed some of the successes we’ve enjoyed, in terms of capturing or killing some of al Qaeda’s leaders. So I would caution you against judging forever one’s performance prior to 9/11.
Q What will happen if Congress overrules — what if Congress overrules the President?
MS. TOWNSEND: That was two. You’ve got other colleagues. Yes, sir.