FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be . . . FEMA
By Al Kamen
Friday, October 26, 2007; A19
FEMA has truly learned the lessons of Katrina. Even its handling of the media has improved dramatically. For example, as the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator, had a 1 p.m. news briefing.
were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely
many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices.
given an 800 number to call in, though it was a "listen only" line, the
notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on
Fox News (see the Fox News video of the news conference carried on the Think Progress Web site), MSNBC and other outlets.
stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he
would take a few questions. The first questions were about the
"commodities" being shipped to Southern California and how officials
are dealing with people who refuse to evacuate. He responded eloquently.
was apparently quite familiar with the reporters -- in one case, he
appears to say "Mike" and points to a reporter -- and was asked an
oddly in-house question about "what it means to have an emergency
declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration" signed by the
president. He once again explained smoothly.
"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" a reporter asked. Another asked about "lessons learned from Katrina."
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson said, hailing "a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team."
so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience,
the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership,"
Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff
DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't
seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked
about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires.
And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on
about FEMA's greatness.
Of course, that could be because the
questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the
questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.
about this, Widomski said: "We had been getting mobbed with phone calls
from reporters, and this was thrown together at the last minute."
the staff did not make up the questions, he said, and Johnson did not
know what was going to be asked. "We pulled questions from those we had
been getting from reporters earlier in the day." Despite the very short
notice, "we were expecting the press to come," he said, but they
didn't. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like
the real thing.
"If the worst thing that happens to me in this
disaster is that we had staff in the chairs to ask questions that
reporters had been asking all day, Widomski said, "trust me, I'll be
Heck of a job, Harvey.He's Leaving, Not Quitting
David Denehy, a.k.a. "The $75 Million Man," who headed a controversial program to dispense that amount to promote democracy in Iran, is leaving his job today at the State Department to go private-sector as head of a small company.
a recent e-mail, Denehy said that "my decision to leave the
administration is due, in part, to my belief that I am better able to
serve the goals of the President's Freedom Agenda from outside the
government. While there have been many challenges to the work we have
done together, the rewards have been equally great."
two dozen Iranian American and human rights groups said the Iran
program, which began last year, was "counter-productive" and led to
wider repression of activists who were accused of being foreign agents
or traitors. Four Iranian Americans were jailed for "crimes against
national security," the groups said in appealing to Congress to
eliminate the program, and continuation of the program would only
further endanger democracy efforts by giving the Iranian government "a
pretext to harass its own population."
But Denehy, in an e-mail
to us yesterday, said he's not leaving because of criticism of the
effort. "I continue to enjoy the support of my leadership," he said,
and "from Congress and more importantly from those within Iran who
participate in our programs. . . . I don't back away from a fight."
April 8, 2004: Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the Sept. 11 commission that "terrorism is terrorism is terrorism -- in other words, you can't fight al-Qaeda and hug Hezbollah or hug Hamas."
don't make a distinction between different kinds of terrorism. And
we're, therefore, united with the countries of the world to fight all
kinds of terrorism. Terrorism is never an appropriate or justified
response just because of political difficulty."
Wednesday: Army Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, a senior member of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
told a news briefing: "There are over 45 different organizations on the
State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and you can't look
at all of them the same way.
"If you look at all of these as
nails, then all of the solutions you have all of a sudden suddenly
start to appear like a hammer, and a hammer's not always the right
Hmmmm. . . .Don't Forget Where You Came From
In June, Paul McNulty left the No. 2 job at the Justice Department -- and the hassle being called to Capitol Hill
to answer questions about whether politics played a role in the firing
of U.S. attorneys -- for a big-bucks partnership at Baker &
McKenzie in Washington.
He told the audience at an American Bar Association
conference in Washington yesterday that he's still getting the hang of
his new job. Talking about criminal-fraud investigations of big
companies, McNulty referred to himself as part of the government, then
laughed and told the crowd: "I have to get the 'we' out of my
vocabulary," our colleague Carrie Johnson reports.
he needs to remember who's signing his paycheck. At the conference,
McNulty staunchly defended a DOJ policy that allows prosecutors to
strong-arm companies to comply with the feds.
The Federal Aviation Administration calls to say that the poker table and other furnishings bought for the Atlanta
air traffic control center did not cost $3,500 by itself, as we had
written Wednesday, but only $795. And it's a "de-briefing table for
trainees," FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said, although you
"could flip over the top for the checkerboard on the other side," which
folks could use to relax during downtime.
Of course, they could
play poker on it. And since the FAA can't get around to spending a few
bucks to fix the chronically leaky roof at the center, the controllers
could put their equipment under the table so it's not damaged when it
rains. Beats using the umbrellas that they have to hold over the stuff
"It could be used for other purposes," Spitalieri conceded.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.
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