Chertoff Versus Brown, Round Two

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Its been one year since Michael Chertoff was appointed head of the Department of Homeland Security, and its not a happy anniversary. Chertoff spoke before a Senate hearing this week, facing his critics and explaining his agency's lackluster performance during Hurricane Katrina.

"Curiously disengaged" during the onset of the crisis is how Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins depicted Chertoff; she also wondered why he took a trip to Atlanta rather than directing the effort from Washington. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton called DHS under Chertoff's leadership "non-functional," while Collins chose "late," "uncertain, "ineffective," "alarming" and "unacceptable" to define the agency's performance. Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman said Chertoff "failed the President" by not informing him of the doubts he had about then-Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown. The "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" comment came a day after Chertoff says that he had begun to question Brown's ability.

Deciphering the interplay between Brown and Chertoff was key objective for the Senators. At a hearing last week, Brown blamed Chertoff for the federal government's botched handling of Katrina and claimed that briefing Chertoff during the crisis would have been a "waste of time." In other comments since he was dismissed from FEMA, Brown has adamantly disagreed with how FEMA was folded into the Homeland Security Department, which he felt shrunk FEMA's authority and compromised its ability to react to events like hurricanes.

The Senators offered a chance for Chertoff to shoot back. Chertoff explained that early in his tenure as Homeland Security chief, Brown wanted wide power to determine the use of federal grants that went to the department. Chertoff says he decided not to give Brown that authority and recognized that Brown, at that point, might want to leave the agency. "If you are going to stay, Chertoff told him, we need your full commitment." Brown, according to Chertoff, said he understood the decision and was willing to stay in the job and implement Chertoff's ideas.

Chertoff said he expected FEMA to play a major role in the government's response to the Katrina, because the agency had so many experienced hands that had worked on previous natural disasters. But he also said that as the week of the hurricane went on, each day he had more questions about Brown's performance. Chertoff said he was initially reluctant about getting in the way of what he repeatedly called "operators"—officials like Brown who were supposed to be doing the work he supervised. "Although I'm the secretary, I am not a hurricane operator," he said.

But he added that as the crisis continued, he was "nudging, prodding and raising my voice" to get Brown more active, particularly in getting buses into New Orleans to evacuate residents there. A couple of days later, Chertoff says he realized Brown needed to be replaced. "I asked myself whether, despite good intentions, Mr. Brown is not up for this," he said.

The Senators, however, couldn't understand why it took Chertoff so long to move Brown out. "It was clear, Brown was in way over his head" on the first day of the hurricane, said Senator Coleman. Unlike Brown, Chertoff pleased the senators by taking blame for the government's failure and admitting he made mistakes." He called DHS's failures "my responsibility." "There are many lapses that occurred," he said. "I've spent a lot of time the last six months thinking how things could have been done differently." He called Katrina "one of the most difficult incidents of my life."

Chertoff is already talking about plans to improve DHS, no doubt reflecting not only a sincere desire to fix a key federal agency, but also a need to rehabilitate what had been a sterling reputation from his years prosecuting terrorists and mob men. He said his first immediate goal is to stop "stove-piping"—the term he used for agencies within DHS, like FEMA, not sharing information with each other during crises. Before September 11, the intelligence community had similar problems and Chertoff suggested his task in fixing DHS would be just as difficult. But Chertoff better fix his agency soon. Hurricane season starts in less than four months.