Sunday, July 29, 2007

The new FEMA

I traveled to Baltimore this week to attend a National FEMA conference. I was there representing the best state emergency response team in the nation. FEMA invited two representatives from each state to attend at their expense and I was one of the two Florida representatives.

A lot of the many voluntary agencies active in disaster were at the conference.There was an extremely large contingent of American Red Cross employees from around the nation. We even had state representatives from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Finally, there was considerable FEMA representation from the various FEMA Regions and National Headquarters.

The new FEMA was very much on display at the conference and I was impressed with the quality of the FEMA employees that I met. Of course, I don't think the old FEMA was as bad as they were painted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I strongly believe that FEMA was unfairly maligned by individuals and organizations who were ignorant of emergency management and the expected role that FEMA would play in a disaster.

FEMA is a small organization designed to support and not supplant state and local governments in a disaster. In my emergency management career I have worked on eighteen hurricanes. In the memorable 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, when eight hurricane struck the state of Florida, I requested and received considerable resources from FEMA. The support that I received from FEMA during this period was excellent. I was pleased with the support that I received from FEMA because I was very specific in the type and quantity of my requests and I had reasonable expectations of when these requested items would arrive.

We need to stop beating up on FEMA. The snide comments and drumbeat of negative media stories is not only demoralizing to the FEMA workforce but it has driven many veteran professionals to retire or leave the agency. We need FEMA. We will need FEMA not just in the everyday disasters but especially when the next catastrophic event strikes our country. Whether it is a major hurricane, a large earthquake or a devastating terrorist strike, the state and local governments will be overwhelmed and will need effective assistance from the federal government.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Congressional scorecard on Iraq

As required by law, President Bush this week submitted a report to Congress that scored the progress of Iraqi political reconciliation. Whether it was the oil law or de-Baathification the Iraqi politicians received (depending on which headline you wanted to read) mixed or unsatisfactory reviews. There was plenty in the report for supporters and critics of the war to use.

I find it interesting that our Congress is scoring the Iraqi parliament when their own report card is so abysmal. Popular approval of the job performance of Congress is even lower than (gasp!) the President's. An institution has to be doing pretty bad to have an approval rating lower than this President.

I have heard many speeches from members of Congress about how the Iraqi parliament needs to get cracking, not take so many vacations and pass some of these important laws. Commentators pronounce on how the Iraqi democracy is "dysfunctional", the Iraqi government is "ineffective" or Prime Minister Maliki is "inept."

Let's look at our own dysfunctional, ineffective and inept political elite. Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth the Congress has yet to pass a law on Iraq. What about the millions of illegal immigrants in this country and the thousands that continue to pour across our borders? What has Congress done about that? What did the last Congress do about it?

What about the tens of millions of Americans who have no health insurance? And the skyrocketing increases in Medicare (13% last year)? Despite universal agreement that these issues are a problem, and despite the fact that no one is shooting at our elected leaders (yet), no laws are being passed to resolve these issues.

Considering their situation, the Iraqi parliament is doing have bad.

Monday, July 02, 2007

General Taguba, Seymour Hersh & Abu Ghraib

In January 2004 I visited Abu Ghraib prison. Even before the name became infamous in the world, the prison was notorious within Iraq. The prison is named for the town of Abu Ghraib and lies to the West of Baghdad, just off Highway 1.

Highway 1, commonly referred to in Iraq as MSR Tampa, begins in the south near Kuwait and travels north through the center of the country towards Baghdad. During my tour in the country the road was a modern, four lane divided highway similar to one of our Interstate highways. A portion of the road north of An Nasiriyah was unfinished. There the road was a dusty, gravel strewn scar through a desolate landscape that resembled the moon.

South of Baghdad MSR Tampa curves West and brushes the edge of the city on the way to Anbar province and the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The easiest (and safest) way to leave the Baghdad airport in January 2004 was to depart the back gate and jump on MSR Tampa. On that January day in 2004 that was my plan. However a Ukrainian officer who was with me asked that we stop by the prison on the way back and I agreed

The Ukrainian government wanted the officer to check on a Ukrainian citizen who was being held at the prison as a criminal. Evidently this Ukrainian was a sailor aboard a ship that called on the Iraqi port of Um Qasr. While ashore, he had been arrested for smuggling and shipped to Abu Ghraib.

The prison was one exit to the west of the airport and we arrived there in the middle of the afternoon. I explained to my Ukrainian friend that we had to be out of there in an hour in order to make it back to Al Hilla before dark. Traveling in Iraq was bad enough in the daylight without making things worse by traveling at night. The prison looked like a large, imposing stone fortress. U.S. Army Military Police were responsible for the security of the prison. I followed the Ukrainian officer inside because I was afraid his idea of "Be back in thirty minutes" might be different than mine.

Interestingly enough, Abu Ghraib is the only prison that I have entered in my life so I had liitle basis on which to compare. The cell block that I entered was dark, dingy and depressing. I waited in an administrative office with a number of MPs who appeared to be in a better mood than I would have been had I worked there.

Not all jobs in Iraq were the same. Some were more dangerous than others. Other jobs were just plain nasty. Being a prison guard in Abu Ghraib looked like a dangerous and nasty job. I spoke to an MP sergeant about his working conditions and he explained that life in Abu Ghraib was much better than it had been before, for the guards and the prisoners alike. When he first arrived at the prison most of the cells were filled with several feet of excrement. I have that comment as a fond memory of my visit.

I thought of this visit as I read the article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in which he interviewed General Taguba, the general officer responsible for the investigation of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. As a twenty plus year subscriber to the New Yorker I have read many articles by Seymour Hersh. I read his article where he accused General Barry McCaffrey of war crimes in the first Gulf war. I also read his breathless account of the Pentagon's preparations for an air attack on Iran (Imagine!). I finally decided that Hersh was a slimy son-of-a-bitch and I wasn't going to read his articles any more. At the recommendation of an email from an Army buddy I changed my mind.

I am sure General Taguba is a fine man and is entitled to his opinion and to be heard. Some of what the general said I agreed with. On the other hand, how much of what he said did Seymour leave out? If you read the article carefully you will find that Hersh composed a shrewdly crafted smear job. He does not provide conclusive proof about any of his allegations. But he makes a lot of nasty insinuations and allegations. He harped a lot on what Don Rumsfeld did or did not know. The former Secretary of Defense made a lot of decisions that can be criticized. A lot of these criticisms are sound and important. Whatever criticisms Hersh made in this article do not fall into that category.

As I said, I have a lot of respect for General Taguba and he deserved to be heard. I find it unfortunate that he used Seymour Hersh as a vehicle for his opinions.

I read the article. I'll not read another by Seymour. He and Michael Moore have the worst kind of similarities.