September 7, 2005

It's Not a 'Blame Game'


With the size and difficulty of the task of rescuing and rebuilding New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas still unfolding, it seemed early to talk about investigating how this predicted cataclysm had been allowed to occur and why the government's response was so slow and inept. Until yesterday, that is, when President Bush blithely announced at a photo-op cabinet meeting that he, personally, was going to "find out what went right and what went wrong." We can't imagine a worse idea.

No administration could credibly investigate such an immense failure on its own watch. And we have learned through bitter experience - the Abu Ghraib nightmare is just one example - that when this administration begins an internal investigation, it means a whitewash in which no one important is held accountable and no real change occurs.

Mr. Bush signaled yesterday that we are in for more of the same when he sneered and said, "One of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game." This is not a game. It is critical to know what "things went wrong," as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed - not to humiliate them, but to replace them with competent people.

It's obvious, for instance, that Michael Brown has met the expectations of those who warned that he would be a terrible director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This is no time to be engaging in a wholesale change of leadership, but in Mr. Brown's case there seems to be precious little leadership to lose. He should be replaced with someone who can do the huge job that remains to be done.

But the questions go way beyond Mr. Brown - starting with why federal officials ignored predictions of a disastrous flood in New Orleans - and the answers can come only from an independent commission. We agree with the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Senator Hillary Clinton and others who say that such a panel should follow the successful formula of the 9/11 commission: bipartisan leadership and members chosen by the White House and both parties in Congress on the basis of real expertise. It should have subpoena power and a staff expert enough to find answers and offer remedies.

Mrs. Clinton has also proposed pulling FEMA out of the Homeland Security Department and restoring its cabinet-level status. That is premature. The current setup makes sense, at least in theory. The nation should not have to support two different bureaucracies for dealing with sudden disasters.

Before throwing the system into chaos again, an investigation should determine whether the problem lies in the structure or in execution. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal showed how the Bush administration had systematically stripped power and money from FEMA, which had been painfully rebuilt under President Bill Clinton but had long been a target of Republican "small government" ideologues. The Journal said state officials had been warning Washington - as recently as July 27 - that the homeland secretary, Michael Chertoff, was planning further disastrous cuts.

This page supported the creation of Mr. Chertoff's department. But it was poorly run by the first secretary, Tom Ridge, with his maddening color-wheel alerts.

It is clearly in need of a hard look and perhaps serious reorganization. Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, have plans for hearings, which is fine. But they created the department in the first place and may have more of a stake in the outcome than a panel of impartial experts.

The panel should also look at the shortcomings of local officials and governments. It was chilling, to put it mildly, to read Mayor Ray Nagin's comment in The Journal that New Orleans's hurricane plan was "get people to higher ground and have the feds and the state airlift supplies to them."

But disasters like this are not a city or a state issue. They concern the entire nation and demand a national response - certainly a better one than the White House comments that "tremendous progress" had been made in Louisiana. We're used to that dismissive formula when questions are raised about Iraq. Americans deserve better about a disaster of this magnitude in their own country.