Why Brown's Direct Line Failed

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Former FEMA Director Michael Brown testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Friday

On Monday night, Aug. 29, several hours after the levees broke in New Orleans, then-FEMA director Michael Brown called the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas and told his deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, "we are realizing our worst nightmares... New Orleans is flooded." In his testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee today, Brown said he couldn't remember if George W. Bush got on the phone that night or not. He may have, said Brown. "Not to sound arrogant," he told the Senators, "but I speak to the President a lot."

Even as he contradicted the White House's previous contention that it didn't know the full extent of the Hurricane Katrina damage until Tuesday, Brown's testimony also exposed the two very different tracks of communication that exist inside the Bush Administration. One channel is used by those, like Brown, who are (or at least were) close to the President and have frequent access to his staff; Brown himself had initially gotten to know Bush through his friend and predecessor at FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff as governor and 2000 campaign manager. Another is used by those who may have a lofty title, but lack the access—and, as a result, often lack the ability to get things done. FEMA reports to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and some Senators, like Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, found it hard to believe Brown could not recall if he had spoken with Chertoff on that first night after he got news that New Orleans was flooding. But Brown said he regularly circumvented his boss, a career prosecutor and former federal judge, who was Bush's second choice for his post last year and didn't have the clout that members of the President's inner circle do.

"The way I operate is," Brown said, "I tell the White House what I need and they get things done." When asked later by Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) why Brown didn't push to get Chertoff on the phone that night, he answered frankly , "it would have been a waste of time." Bennett said he was stunned by that "staggering" response, saying, it "indicates a dysfunctional department far greater than we have seen."

It is unclear how much Brown's direct line to the White House means the blame for the paralyzed federal response to Katrina lies firmly with the President. Brown couldn't remember precise details on what exactly he asked the White House for and when. Even so, his testimony that he placed repeated calls to the White House staff and spoke with the President multiple times in the immediate aftermath begs the question: Why didn't more get done? The White House for its part says that it was "well aware" of the flooding and were focused on saving lives, says Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy. "We got helicopters up in the air and into search and rescue," Duffy told TIME, adding that there was a torrent of information coming in and the White House was responding appropriately.

During the months leading up to Katrina, it was becoming clear to Brown that the White House wanted him to make his requests through Department of Homeland Security, a change he resisted. "I was an infighter," he told the committee. He was frustrated with what he saw as a lack of focus on the threat posed by natural disasters, saying that FEMA had become a "stepchild in the department." If a terrorist had blown up the levees, he told the senators, he believed the DHS response would have been more aggressive. But after he testified, two officials at DHS suggested that Brown had only himself to blame, since his refusal to provide reports to Chertoff and others at DHS delayed the response.

Even his apparent closeness with the President couldn't save Brown from the media maelstrom that surrounded his leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Brown resigned on Sept 12 after TIME published a story that questioned whether his resume overstated his emergency management experience. Brown, who now runs his own disaster response consultancy, even went so far as to blame the President for some of his personal woes, citing a press conference when Bush praised his performance using one of the President's signature nicknames. "We developed a very good relationship. Unfortunately he called me 'Brownie' at the wrong time," Brown said, looking into the hearing camera and adding a sarcastic aside directed at Bush: "Thank you very much, sir."