Federal Emergency Management Agency

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a "former independent agency that became part of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 - is tasked with responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters." [1]

"Some people have referred to it as the 'secret government' of the United States. It is not an elected body, it does not involve itself in public disclosures, and it even has a quasi-secret budget in the billions of dollars. This government organization has more power than the President of the United States or the Congress, it has the power to suspend laws, move entire populations, arrest and detain citizens without a warrant and hold them without trial, it can seize property, food supplies, transportation systems, and can suspend the Constitution. Not only is it the most powerful entity in the United States, but it was not even created under Constitutional law by the Congress. It was a product of a Presidential Executive Order." [2]

Faking a press conference

"As the California wildfires raged" in October 2007, FEMA deputy administrator Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson gave a news briefing, which was carried on Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets. But "reporters were only given 15 minutes' notice," and the phone number to call in "was a 'listen only' line," so they could ask "no questions," reported the Washington Post. During the briefing, Johnson "responded eloquently" to such softball questions as "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" Turns out, "the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters." [1]

According to FEMA's Mike Widomski, "the staff did not make up the questions ... and Johnson did not know what was going to be asked. 'We pulled questions from those we had been getting from reporters earlier in the day.' Despite the very short notice, 'we were expecting the press to come,' he said, but they didn't. So the staff played reporters for what on TV looked just like the real thing."[1]

The FEMA staffers playing reporter were:[1]

  • Cindy Taylor, FEMA's Deputy Director of External Affairs
  • Michael Widomski, FEMA's Deputy Director of Public Affairs
  • John "Pat" Philbin, FEMA's Director of External Affairs, and
  • Ali Kirin, FEMA press aide

Philbin is described on FEMA's website as having a "24+ year career in strategic communication ... including crisis communication, media relations, marketing communications, brand management, government relations & strategic planning"; [2] Philbin left FEMA two days after the staged press conference, planning to head public affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [3] (See "Fallout," below.)

The fake event was criticized by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. DHS spokesperson Laura Keehner said that "those involved ... could be reprimanded or fired." [4] DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff called it "[O]ne of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government. ... [I]t is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment. ... There will be appropriate discipline." [5]

Johnson later apologized for the staged event, releasing a statement that said: "We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent. ... We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment." [3]

Fake conference fallout

The week after the fake FEMA press conference, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell announced that John "Pat" Philbin "is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the director of public affairs" for McConnell's office. On October 30, 2007, the New York Times reported: "So far, it looks as if no others will lose their jobs over the incident, but the public affairs office is being reshuffled. As of Monday, Russ Knocke, the press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent, has been temporarily transferred to the agency to supervise the press operation." [6]

On November 7, FEMA press secretary Aaron Walker resigned, effective in early December 2007. It was not clear whether Walker's resignation was voluntary. [7]

Also in early November, Philbin began complaining of his treatment publicly. "People who know very little about what happened have drawn conclusions and now I'm battling to recover my reputation and what I believe to be a fairly stellar career," Philbin told the trade publication PR Week. "People were working fast, on very little sleep, and they were just trying to get information out." [8] Philbin also talked with the trade publication O'Dwyer's, sharing with them a letter he had sent to the Washington Post. The letter states, "I was busy with meetings and unaware prior to the briefing that reporters had been given inadequate time to arrive and the phone line was listen-only. The staff tried to salvage the event. ... Mistakes were made. ... Because I was in charge, I take responsibility. ... However, neither I nor anyone else on the staff is guilty of any attempt to deceive." [9] (In January 2008, Philbin accepted a position at PIER Systems, as the "public information management" company's senior vice-president and head of East Coast operations. [10])

FEMA's internal investigation found that press secretary Aaron Walker "directed aides to pose as reporters, secretly coached them during the briefing and ended the event after a final, scripted question was asked," according to the Washington Post. "Six minutes before the briefing was to start, Walker sent an e-mail telling members of [FEMA's] external affairs staff to be prepared to fill chairs and 'to spur discussion' in the absence of reporters. Walker specifically told Mike Widomski, deputy director of public affairs, which question to ask first and assigned press aide Ali Kirin to ask a sixth and final question. Off camera, Walker encouraged staff members in the room to continue asking questions, even as he pretended to cut off discussion, interjecting at one point, 'Two more questions.'" FEMA deputy director Harvey Johnson, who gave the fake briefing, said "he does not recall being advised that staff would be asking questions." [11]

News accounts of the investigation's findings came the day after Walker submitted his resignation, apparently at FEMA chief R. David Paulison's request. Walker "did not apologize for his actions and said he had planned since September to leave FEMA to seek private-sector work in Utah," reported the Washington Post. [11]

Brookings warning about FEMA-DHS merger

In the July 15, 2002, Press Briefing: "Brookings Report Urges Congress to Revise President Bush's Homeland Security Proposal," the Brookings Institution said:

"...FEMA ought to remain independent, basically for three reasons. One, let's not overdue the merger of too many agencies ... Two, if you do bring FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security will become the responsible agency in case of a massive national disaster, be it a Hurricane Andrew or an LA earthquake or what have you. In that case the entire department or major parts of it will start to focus on the immediate response question with regard to the natural disaster and not respond to the wider, and to thus, primary mission of protecting our homeland against terrorist threats. And third, by merging FEMA which has been emerging in the last ten years as an extraordinarily effective agency into this department, you are not likely to improve its performance, but you are likely to reduce its performance."
  • Also see:
  • "Improve National Response and Recovery Efforts by Focusing FEMA on Its Core Functions. FEMA will report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security. In order to strengthen and enhance our Nation’s ability to respond to and recover from manmade or natural disasters, FEMA will now focus on its historic and vital mission of response and recovery." (emphasis added)

The question is this: If FEMA was so competent in 2001 when Tropical Storm Allison struck Texas, what happened after that? In 2001, Joe M. Allbaugh was FEMA Director, assisted by Dorrance Smith. Just compare how outstanding the response was for Houston (and in Florida, for that matter) to the August and September 2005 hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.

Fraud and waste

Criticisms of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina are developing as survivors remain displaced for an extended period. Survivors continue to organize and document gaps in FEMA's programs at a wiki site: www.FEMAanswers.org.

  • "The national disaster response agency that mishandled the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe has for years been fraught with waste and fraud," Sally Kestin reported September 18, 2005, in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "In five years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency poured at least $330 million into communities that were spared the devastating effects of fires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. ... Taxpayers' money meant to help victims recover from catastrophes has instead gone to people in communities that suffered little or no damage."

Authority and Powers

"FEMA was created by President Jimmy Carter under Executive Order #12148. Its legal authorization is Title 42, United States Code 5121 (42 USC Sec. 5121) called the 'Stafford Act.' During activation of Executive Orders, FEMA answers only to the National Security Council which answers only to the President. Once these powers are invoked, not even Congress can intervene or countermand them for six months." [3]


Contact details

URL: http://www.fema.gov/

SourceWatch resources

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Al Kamen, "FEMA Meets the Press, Which Happens to Be . . . FEMA," Washington Post, October 26, 2007.
  2. Biography, "John P. Philbin, Ph.D.," FEMA website, accessed October 2007; changed to Web.archive.org link October 31, 2007, after Philbin's bio was removed from FEMA's site.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Spencer S. Hsu, "FEMA Official Apologizes for Staged Briefing With Fake Reporters," Washington Post, October 27, 2007.
  4. Daniel Fowler, "Reprimands Could Follow Press Conference Fraud, DHS Says," Congressional Quarterly, October 26, 2007.
  5. Mark Silva, "Chertoff promises 'discipline' for phony presser," Baltimore Sun blog "The Swamp," October 27, 2007.
  6. Eric Lipton, "FEMA Aide Loses New Job Over Fake News Conference," New York Times, October 30, 2007.
  7. E&P Staff, "Second FEMA Official Quits Over Faked Press Briefing," Editor & Publisher, November 7, 2007.
  8. Ted McKenna, "Ex-FEMA external affairs director speaks out," PR Week, November 7, 2007.
  9. "FEMA Public Affairs Head Was Leaving Agency," O'Dwyer's PR Daily (sub req'd), November 8, 2007.
  10. Press release, "[http://nw1.enr-corp.com/oneKITDir/1003241/index.html Former FEMA External Affairs Leader Joins PIER Systems: John P. 'Pat' Philbin, Ph.D., named Senior Vice President of firm providing leading public information management technology]," PIER Systems, January 16, 2008.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Spencer S. Hsu, "FEMA Press Secretary Directed Fake News Briefing, Inquiry Finds," Washington Post, November 9, 2007.