Wednesday, September 21, 2005


By William Fisher

Either President Bush just doesn’t get it, or he just doesn’t care, or he thinks the people he serves are all gullible morons.

He’s appointed his own Homeland Security Advisor, Ms. Frances Townsend, to lead the White House investigation into how the government screwed up with Hurricane Katrina – and what to do about it.

Does the president really believe the American people will find such an investigation credible?

I’m sure Ms. Townsend is a very smart lady. She has a reputation for being tough-minded and independent. Maybe she’ll really try to do a thorough investigation.

But the appearance of independence is as important as the fact of independence. And it simply stretches credulity to think Ms. Townsend is likely to get away with being independent of her boss, the President, even if she wants to. Can anyone imagine Karl Rove approving any report that might embarrass the president or actually hold anyone accountable, bar Brownie?

Second, Ms. Townsend is a career prosecutor with no experience in natural disaster preparedness or response. Her homeland security experience has been limited to terrorism-related intelligence.

Ms. Townsend chairs the Homeland Security Council and reports to the President on Homeland Security policy and Combating Terrorism matters. She previously served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism. She came to the White House from the U.S. Coast Guard, where she served as Assistant Commandant for Intelligence. Prior to that, she spent 13 years at the Department of Justice in a variety of senior positions, her last assignment as Counsel to the Attorney General for Intelligence Policy. She began her prosecutorial career in 1985, serving as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York. In 1988, she joined the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York where she focused on international organized crime and white-collar crime cases.

A pretty distinguished record, but where is the natural disaster piece? Investigative skills are simply not enough. You need to know the subject matter.

Third, her track record leading investigations does not exactly inspire confidence. When former Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman completed their highly limited White House-commissioned report on pre-Iraq intelligence failures last April, the president ordered her to cull through the recommendations, most of which could be enacted by executive action. The investigation was limited because the commission was "not authorized" to explore the question of how the commander in chief used the flawed information.

Ms. Townsend directed Cabinet secretaries to report back to her quickly. "You will begin to see action in a matter of weeks," Townsend said from the White House podium. Maybe I missed something, but I think we’re still waiting.

Finally, if Ms. Townsend were really on top of her current job, wouldn’t the president have known that his Department of Homeland Security is a bureaucratic nightmare, a pastiche of more than 70 unmanaged – and perhaps unmanageable – agencies stitched together with a focus so obsessed with terrorism that natural disasters are all but forgotten?

Wouldn’t he have known that Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and could have unimaginably devastating consequences?

Evidently, no one – not Mr. Chertoff, not the hapless, unqualified and now-departed Mr. Brown, and not Frances Townsend – wanted to be the bearer of such dire tidings. In Washington, it’s the messenger who too often takes the hit.

So Ms. Townsend may indeed be a very smart fox, but she’s a fox nevertheless. The hens should run for cover right away!

People with serious government experience know that the minute you hear that the boss is organizing an inter-agency task force, the spin machine is about to kick into high gear. Why else would the president give Karl Rove, the “architect”, such a prominent role in the rebuilding effort? He would seem to be a tad light on emergency preparedness experience.

The bottom line is that the White House can investigate itself about as thoroughly as the Defense Department investigated its lapses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

That’s why we have Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s why, in the end, despite the president’s resistance, we ended up with a 9/11 Commission and some conclusions we could believe.

We need nothing less if we really want to know what went wrong during Katrina and what we have to do to fix it.