Sunday, January 31, 2010

Our National Catastrophe by James Farmer

This book has shown that fundamental disconnects between and among government agencies, between the bureaucracies within the agencies and also between the different agencies and the national leadership had existed throughout the five year struggle against al Qaeda. These disconnects beset every agency of government charged with adapting to the new threat: the FBI; the CIA; the State Department; the Department of Defense; the Department of Transportation. In each case, agencies were able to identify the threat but were thoroughly incapable of changing they way they were configured, in order to respond to it. Emblematic of these failures is the ultimate Whiskey Tango Foxtrot* moment to emerge from the 9./11 Commission's investigation: the image of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger hiding documents in his socks, so desperate to prevent the public from seeing certain papers that he sneaked out of the National Archives and hid the documents at a nearby construction site so that he could shred them later. The desire to inhibit the discovery of historical truth, it turns out, is truly bipartisan, and- as the revelation that the CIA destroyed the tapes of its interrogation of detainees reveals- is not limited by government agency; it is endemic to the modern way of government.

Taken as a whole, the government's response to the emerging threat of terrorist attack was a stunning collapse of competence; 9/11 was its trailing consequence. The response on 9/11 replicated in compressed time the mis-communications, the garbled signals, the years of bureaucratic frustration that had preceded it. It was the product of a government that doesn't work, and the false story put forward about the event of that morning allowed the government to avoid the kind of searching reexamination that was appropriate to the situation. Thus, years later, Richard Clarke could still believe that his high-level videoconference had been the nerve center of the nation's response; no one had done the thoroughgoing analysis that would have exposed the reality that national leadership was irrelevant during those critical moments. As a consequence, no one had acted to ensure that similar disconnects would not recur in a future.

Instead, the principal response to the failure of bureaucracy was not an attempt to redefine government itself, but the creation of more government, more bureaucracy [ while continuing to blame government and bureaucracy per se]. Thus, in 2002, Congress and the Bush Administration [ blackmailed by their own lies] collaborated in forming a new federal department whose principal aim was to provide "homeland security." A loose conglomeration of disparate agencies, such as Immigration, Transportation Security, Secret Service, FEMA, the U.S. Coast Guard, all of which had some relation to homeland security, the department would face its first stern test in September 2005, when a long-anticipated threat approached the homeland. This threat came not in a human form but in the form of a natural disaster. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the bureaucratic failures that resulted in 9/11 would be replicated, in every respect, in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:

One of my staff members on the 9/11 Commission was Kevin Shaeffer, a rising star in the Navy before 9/11 who had, by chance, been standing behind a pillar when American 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Everyone in his vicinity was killed. Kevin suffered severe burns over most of his body, and flatlined twice in the course of his recovery. His injuries forced him to retire from the military at the age of thirty. He brought to our work a dedication and intense desire to know the truth of what had occurred that inspired all of us.

I walked past Kevin's work space one afternoon late in the summer of 2003 and heard him muttering, under his breath, "whiskey tango foxtrot, man. Whiskey tango foxtrot." What's that?" I asked. Kevin and Miles Kara (a Vietnam veteran) laughed and explained: a military euphemism for "What the fuck!",.

I don't recall today the particular discrepancy between the official version of what happened on 9/11 and what we were discovering that prompted Kevin's utterance; there were so many that "Whiskey tango foxtrot" became a regular refrain from the members of me team.


  1. In the year before hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans federal, state and local officials participated in perhaps the most extensive dress rehearsal for disaster in American history. For eight days in July 2004 many of them gathered in Louisiana's emergency-management headquarters in Baton Rouge and worked through a computer simulation of a Category 3 storm, Hurricane Pam, striking New Orleans. The results were sobering- projecting as many as 60,000 casualties-and exposed many gaps in emergency preparedness. Still, when Katrina bore down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Sunday, August 28,2005, it was an emergency that had been anticipated, the response to which had been planned for and coordinated, including the institution of the National Incident Management System the National Response Plan, and an Interagency Management Group, although New Orlean's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (2000) had not been rewritten to reflect the lessons of the Hurricane PAM exercise.

    On that same Sunday President Bush President Bush participated in a conference call with the governors of the effected region, FEMA director Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff saying: "We are fully prepared to not only he-p you during the storm, bu will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you with the loss of property. And we pray for no loss of life, of course." FEMA director Brown, already in Baton Rouge, stated "We've got everything we need from the Federal government.."

    The Pam exercise indicated that Louisiana would need 69 truckloads of water, 69 truckloads of ice, 34 truckloads of food, 28 truckloads of tarps and 100,000 sets of blankets. By Sunday night FEMA had stage 30 truckloads of water, 17 truckloads of ice, 15 truckloads of food, 6 truckloads of tarps, and a truckload of blankets. It had pre-positioned no cots and no plastic sheeting. Pam had disclosed the need for 400 buses and 800 drivers. FEMA had no buses prestaged in Louisiana; New Orleans buses were felt sitting in the parking lots. FEMA had brought in only fifty generators, or half of what the Hurricane PAM exercise indicated were needed to pump out the city. At that point no action had been taken to remove prisoners from prison or patients from hospitals and many Hotels in New Orleans remained open. At least 100,000 poverty-stricken people were left to fend for themselves, or left stranded in the Superdome, without adequate supplies (though plenty of security) and a plumbing system that soon backed-up.

    If not for the independent actions of the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard, operating outside the bureaucratic chain of command designed to respond to this particular and long anticipated disaster, many more lives would have been lost.

    By the end of the day the following Wednesday, it was clear that the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System had been irrelevant to the actual response to Katrina. Rather then coming together in mutual recognition of the failure, the officials involved proceeded to polarize as each level of government began to blame the others. Beginning with a "Good Morning America" interview on September 1, President Bush insisted that the reason for the difficulties in coordinating the response was surprise: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

  2. When I became attorney general for New Jersey, I was confronted by a racial-profiling scandal that had enveloped the New Jersey State Police. A decade before, one of my predecessors, Robert Del Tufo, had with tremendous foresight envisioned the trouble that could result from turning state police into frontline combatants in the war on drugs. Accordingly, he had changed the standard operating procedures regarding roadside stops to require that state police have reasonable suspicion that a vehicle contained contraband before they requested permission to search the vehicle.

    The reform that we put into place as a consequence of racial profiling built on Del Tufo's standard. We simply "drilled down" into the way troopers were conducting stops and changed the procedures and training to conform to the "reasonable suspicion" standard. Merely having the standard in place proved to be insufficient. Similarly, the trouble with many of the initiatives undertaken at the CIA, FBI, NORAD and other agencies before 9/11 ( as in so many other institutions in American Society) was that they registered a level of concern- even urgency- without translating it into an operational context.

  3. "The Ground Truth; The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11" by John Farmer, Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission, Riverhead Books (Penguin) , 2009