NEW YORK - U.S. President George W. Bush's appointment of his own homeland security advisor to head a White House investigation of what went wrong with the government's Hurricane Katrina response and how to fix it is being greeted with some scepticism by emergency preparedness and response experts.
These authorities, many of whom spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity, point out that the president's advisor, Frances Townsend, has little experience in emergency preparedness and response. She is a former prosecutor whose recent background is in terrorism-related intelligence.
They also expressed doubt that anyone in the executive branch of government could produce an objective assessment of itself.
"The idea that anyone in the White House might produce a report that embarrasses the president or holds people accountable is just naïve," one source told IPS.
Dr. Jack N. Behrman, a former assistant secretary of commerce, said in interview that, "The only self-incriminating investigation that is considered valid is a plea of 'guilty as charged'. Since that will not be said concerning the Katrina debacle, the proposed process becomes a 'whitewash' or at least a 'light gray wash' and will not be seen as credible."
"It is a waste of time and money when attention should be paid to how to rectify such incompetence, which requires an independent assessment," Behrman said.
But Townsend, a Republican who has gained a reputation as a tough-minded career official, might just confound her critics.
She currently chairs the Homeland Security Council and reports to the president on Homeland Security policy and matters related to combating terrorism. Townsend came to the White House from the U.S. Coast Guard, where she served as assistant commandant for intelligence.
Prior to that, she spent 13 years at the Department of Justice in a variety of senior positions, her last assignment as counsel to the attorney-general for intelligence policy.
She began her prosecutorial career in 1985, serving as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York. In 1988, she joined the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, where she focused on international organised crime and white-collar crime cases.
However, her investigative track record may not inspire confidence.
When former Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman completed their highly limited White House-commissioned report on pre-Iraq intelligence failures last April, the president ordered Townsend to cull through the recommendations, most of which could be enacted by executive action. The investigation was limited because the commission was "not authorised" to explore the question of how the commander in chief used the flawed information.
Townsend directed cabinet secretaries to report back to her quickly. "You will begin to see action in a matter of weeks," Townsend said from the White House podium.
But it is unclear what impact she had on the reorganisation of the intelligence community, most of which was mandated by Congress.
Townsend's investigation may be similarly limited by the prominent role given to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort. Most observers contacted by IPS agree that it is highly unlikely that the Townsend report will contain anything that could seriously embarrass the president or members of his cabinet.
One lower level official, Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has already resigned. FEMA is customarily the lead agency in providing disaster warnings, and relief and reconstruction funding following natural or man-made disasters.
Brown had no experience in emergency preparedness or response, but was a political appointee at the agency, as were a number of his deputies.
In the wake of the catastrophic hurricane, there have been many calls for an independent 9/11-type commission to find out what went wrong and make recommendations for improving federal, state and local response.
But last week, Senate Republicans killed an attempt by Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, to establish such a body. Clinton got only 44 votes, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome procedural obstacles. The affirmative votes came from 43 Democrats and one Independent.
"Just as with 9/11, we did not get to the point where we believed we understood what happened until an independent investigation was conducted," Clinton said.
Still, the commission idea is far from dead. The 9/11 Commission was established in 2002 after resistance from Republicans and the White House, and opinion polls show the public strongly supports the idea.
In a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll taken Sept. 8-11, 70 percent of those surveyed supported an independent panel to investigate the government's response to Katrina. Only 29 percent were opposed.
Separately, Senate Homeland Security Committee chair Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, has said that post-9/11 changes to improve the government's response to catastrophic disasters failed their first major test despite the billions spent on disaster preparedness since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
Collins presided at the Senate's first post-Katrina hearing last week. She said, "At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy. Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."
The hearing was the first step by Congress' to investigate persistent gaps in the country's readiness and response systems that Katrina exposed.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee, said the response to Katrina "has shaken the public's confidence in the ability of government at all levels to protect them in a crisis".
Their comments came as Republicans and Democrats continued to bicker over whether to appoint an unusual House-Senate panel to investigate the matter, or to create a 9/11-style commission.
Republicans in the House of Representatives said they would push for a "bipartisan" committee to investigate the Katrina debacle, but Democrats were not consulted prior to the public announcement and refused to participate unless an equal number of legislators from each party were represented.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service