David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
We are not safe.
It was frighteningly too easy to witness the post-disaster disaster in New Orleans and realize that the authorities—the local, state and federal governments—cannot effectively handle any of the nightmare scenarios that have seeped into our post-9/11 collective consciousness. A biological weapons attack? A nuclear detonation? An assault on a chemical weapons plant? Heck, could the government even deal with an outbreak of avian flu among humans? The mismanagement and non-management was stunning, painfully embarrassing—The Economist , on its cover, cried, "The shaming of America"—and lethal.
In the fortnight since Katrina struck and exposed the obvious fault lines of American society—race, class, environmental and public health policy—much has been said and written about the failure of the country's leaders (including the buck-passer at the top) to contend with a situation that had been accurately predicted years ago, and much comment has come on the reasons for this failure: a lack of sufficient concern for the poor of New Orleans, cronyism within the government, a misguided sense of priorities (see Iraq), general incompetence. There have been the inevitable calls for investigations. George W. Bush responded by saying that he will examine what went wrong. Congressional GOPers announced they will establish an investigation controlled by Republicans. Whatever comes out of these likely-to-be unimpressive endeavors, one conclusion is clear and needs no further evidence to support it: the Bush administration has shirked what might be called its First Response responsibilities. And that ought to be a firing offense.
Let's look at the final report of the independent and bipartisan 9/11 commission (the creation of which the Bush White House initially opposed). The chapter entitled "Heroism and Horror" opens with these lines:
Emergency response is a product of preparedness. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the last best hope for the community of people working in or visiting the World Trade Center rested not with national policymakers but with private firms and local public servants, especially the first responders: fire, police, emergency medical service, and building safety professionals.
The chapter ends this way:
Civilians and first responders will again find themselves on the front lines. We must plan for that eventuality. A rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day.
After Bush received the 9/11 report, he said, "I look forward to studying their recommendations, and look forward to working with responsible parties within my administration to move forward on those recommendations." But he never moved forward on the first response front. The Katrina screw-up exposed many of the problems that hindered the rescue workers of 9/11: poor communications, lousy coordination, insufficient resources. (As the Times-Picayune of New Orleans noted, if Harry Connick Jr. was able to get into New Orleans after the storm and help neighbors, why couldn't the federal government?) But the tragedy is not merely that we—by which I mean they—did not learn from 9/11, but that the warnings that came after 9/11 were not heeded by the Bush administration.
In June 2003, nearly two years after that horrible day, a task force assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations released a report with a chilling conclusion: the United States was drastically underfunding local responders and remained dangerously unprepared to deal with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil. The task force—which included former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, former Admiral William Crowe, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and former CIA chief and past FBI director William Webster—noted:
According to data provided to the Task Force by emergency responder professional associations and leading emergency response officials from around the country, America will fall approximately $98.4 billion short of meeting critical emergency responder needs over the next five years if current funding levels are maintained.
A $100 billion shortfall? How unprepared can a nation be? Though the task force's focus was on terrorist attacks, its findings were relevant for non-terrorism catastrophes. It reported that "on average, fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift, and breathing apparatuses for only one-third. Only 10 percent of fire departments in the United States have the personnel and equipment to respond to a building collapse." It noted that "most cities do not have the necessary equipment to determine what kind of hazardous materials emergency responders may be facing." (It also found that "police departments in cities across the country do not have the protective gear to safely secure a site following an attack with weapons of mass destruction.")
The Bush administration, by then mired in the quicksand of Iraq, did not mount a crash program to enhance and support first responders. In fact, it did the opposite. The following year it slashed federal funding for first responders by 30 percent, which entailed defunding entire programs, such as SafeComm, which aimed to insure that the communication systems of various responders are interoperable. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended these budget cuts and said the Bush administration had engaged in tough "balancing" of fiscal and security needs. At the same time, the Bush administration was pushing for more tax cuts that would benefit wealthy Americans.
Did the Bush administration make the right call when it came to "balancing" these needs? I'd like to see an investigative panel examine that question—as well as evaluate the Bush administration's response to the Katrina disaster. In some ways, the Katrina disaster is worse than 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The storm was no surprise. And after 9/11, the government supposedly took steps so it could deal with a dramatic emergency. Still, failure reigned. This is an occasion when an after-action report—as well as dismissals and departures (beyond FEMA chief Michael Brown's resignation)—could come in handy. Some agency, some official has to assume responsibility for making sure that the next disaster is handled slightly less terribly.
But Bush—who underfunded first responders and who praised Brown—is hardly the fellow to review what went wrong. Earlier this week, he defended himself by claiming that he had spoken to the nation about the Katrina emergency early on August 29, the day the storm hit. But he had not yet addressed the nation at that point. If he cannot get his own story straight, how can he untangle the overall mess? As for the Republican-led joint committee, that seems a rigged endeavor. Does anyone believe congressional GOPers can investigate a Republican administration without fear or favor? After all, the Republicans have ducked investigations on Halliburton's contracts in Iraq, the Downing Street memos, Enron, the Valerie Wilson/CIA leak and other matters that might embarrass you-know-who.
In defending their proposal to place a joint House-Senate committee led by Republicans (and containing more Republicans than Democrats) in charge of the post-Katrina inquiry, Republican congressional leadership have pointed to the Iran-contra investigation of 1987. That probe was indeed conducted by a joint committee that featured more Democrats than Republicans. But the target of that investigation was a Republican administration. The best course of action in these situations is to have a bipartisan and independent commission (even if the 9/11 commission had its faults). The second best option is an investigation led by the party not responsible for the wrongdoing (even if that has the potential to lead to lead to a political witch hunt). The worst alternative is the one being peddled by the Republicans: asking the members of one party to examine the actions (or inactions) of the leader of their party.
Tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of Americans were abandoned by the Bush administration (and ill-served by their local and state officials). People died because of this. And a harsh reality was exposed: In the event of a calamity—whether caused by nature or by terrorists—we cannot expect the government to respond competently. It is scary out there. And the people of New Orleans—and the rest of us—deserve a few answers. If we are on our own, it would be better to know that now rather than later.