Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

Don't Pull FEMA Out of DHS, Chertoff Says

Severing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and again giving it independence is an idea being floated by some emergency response organizations for the new administration and 111th Congress to tackle when they get to work next month. Current DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff explained why he dislikes the idea during a Dec. 9 roundtable with bloggers about the state and future of his agency. About six such gatherings had been held previously, and Chertoff said he enjoyed them and wished they had begun earlier in his tenure.

"When you talk about your July 2005 comments about creating an integrated planning capacity, part of that, obviously, is FEMA," one of the blogger participants asked. "And there are International Association of Emergency Mangers and others who are talking about taking, you know, that portion away from DHS. If they're successful in doing that, what does that mean for . . . the rest of the department? Do you see other portions of the department breaking off and becoming autonomous again?"

"No, I don't think it's -- I mean, that would just create a lot of extra, you know, floundering around," Chertoff answered. "I think that taking FEMA out would return us to the days when the police and the fire and emergency people didn't talk to each other. Everybody did their own thing, and then they had a fight during an event. And frankly, there was a little bit of that on 9/11, where it was two independent groups, both excellent at what they do, but not integrated tools of their planning.

"If you look at open-source reporting from Mumbai, there was a complaint about lack of coordination, including between emergency services and police," he continued. "As I'm looking at planning we're doing for the inauguration, I have to look at, and the state and local governments are going to have to look at, the whole spectrum of things. It's going to require prevention, protection, law enforcement, and emergency response if something happens. Isn't it better to have all that in one place? And more than that, to have interoperable tools, so that when FEMA needs air support to scope something out, we've already planned and trained for that because we're part of one department. Or when you need to have extra bodies or extra boots on the ground to distribute food, we can get TSA to do that for FEMA. That is much easier within a single department than if you have to work between departments.

"And, you know, I think in my reading of the history of the Defense Department, for thirty to forty years, people in the Navy were saying, 'Pull the Navy out of DoD, we don't want to be tied together with the Army.' And of course, I think it wasn't until Desert 1, that failure, that everybody finally said, you know, we ought to get serious and put that to rest; we ought to really integrate the Defense Department. And I think that that's the lesson for here, as well."

The public perception came up in a subsequent question: "What's the biggest misconception that Joe Public has of this agency?"

"A sprawling, 22-agency conglomerate," Chertoff replied. "So, first, where does 22 agencies come from? As near as I can figure, someone counted up the direct reports to the Secretary under the original plan. But the truth is, most of the direct reports were very small offices, like the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties or the Privacy Office. Those weren't large agencies. They're basically supporting elements.

"There are really eight major operating elements in the department: the seven operating components and the National Protection and Programs Division, which is where we put the cyber security and the infrastructure protection, where we do, you know, some of our regulatory aspect. And if you think about it, all of the pieces -- and I would argue FEMA fits here, too -- are integrated. They fit together thematically. Most of our operating elements deal with some element of the border or transportation, how do you keep bad things out, how do you make sure that when things are moving around they don't become a threat or they don't become a target. And then when you add FEMA in, that gives us the response and mitigation piece, which rounds out the prevention and protection piece."

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