Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Profiles-The Independent FEMA Directors-Julius Becton

Retired 3-star Julius Becton arrived at FEMA after confirmation in early November 1985. His most recent employment had been as head of the OFDA in AID. OFDA is the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. While there he had transmitted a proposed MOU with FEMA for provision of technical assistance in foreign disasters. No response had been received. After being sworn in General Becton requested that his staff find out what had happened to the requested MOU from OFDA. It could not be found. General Becton then had OFDA transmit a new version which he then signed as the FEMA Director. This was a very useful MOU to both agencies but of course in essence both ends were signed off by General Becton. I use this example to indicate that General Becton did have some savvy about bureaucracy and of course knew that important documents, often crucial to FEMA's survival, often got lost. In fact one of the things that often characterized FEMA in my 20 years is that written direction from the WH was often ignored. Not so under General Becton. In fact however, General Becton reported to the WH through the Attorney General, Edwin Meese throughout his time as Director FEMA, an arrangement that also was in place when Louis O. Guiffrida was Director, first when Meese was Counselor to the President, and then when Meese was AG. In fact it is my understanding that Meese was the official who swore into office both of these Reagan era directors.

Becton inherited an organization that was in cultural shock from the tenure of General Guiffrida. His calm demeanor and in general willingness to listen to his senior civil servants was a welcome change from the prior Director, at least for the civil service personnel. To some extent he operated as a Flag Rank does in the military with essentially adopting a Chief Executive Officer who was both guard dog and filter for issues and policies. Nonetheless he did have a common touch. He stopped by my office once and commented on the framed ARCOM on the wall and took the time to read it. He brought over from OFDA Ms. Heidi Meyer, who became defector policy Chief of Staff although not operations Chief of Staff. Ms. Meyer was a Navy Nurse, reserve, and her husband was a political appointee in DOD, Admiral William Meyer, retired. He held the health portfolio in DOD. The Chief of Staff that served the longest under General Becton was William Tidball, who had acted as RD in several regions in his career and was a well respected SES in FEMA for his disaster operational experience. More about Bill Tidball later in this series.

I could argue that smoothing feathers ruffled by General Guiffrida was General Becton's primary job, both intra-agency and inter-agency. But that would be unfair since some very substantive activity occurred under General Becton.
First, the final drafting and issuance of Executive Order 12656 replacing E.O. 11490 from 1969 occurred. The new order was issued on November 18, 1988. Also of significance was the passage and enactment of the Robert T. Stafford Act on November 23, 1988.

Internally to FEMA however General Becton led the first and last major effort ever conducted in FEMA to determine whether FEMA was an operational agency, and if so the scope of those operations and needed systems support. This was the FEMA Capability Assessment led by Dr. John Powers, PhD and probably the outstanding staff work of my 20 years in FEMA. It revealed of course the fact that the President's Reorganization Project Team had not a clue as to the importance of resolving the FEMA role in operations, and its role as federal safety net when other Executive Branch organizations could not do their assigned jobs. Unfortunately, this issue is still unresolved in the new FEMA but at least since Hurricane Katrina their has been more and more recognition that most federal agencies lacked the interest and skills and funding for their preparedness roles that would allow competent performance in various civil crisis situations. Perhaps the exception is HHS and their efforts have been largely driven by  statutory mandates. The T&I Committee in the House of Representatives still has no clue at to the importance of resolution nor has any administration in the last two decades, although an operations focus was clear during the Clinton Administration, under Director James Lee Witt. He was the principal beneficiary of General Becton's work. The intervening Director Wallace Stickney had his good points but events were to audit his failure to address this policy and practical issue.

General Becton had the misfortune however to serve as Director during the height of the struggles over the licensing of Shoreham Nuclear Power Station and the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. The latter ended General Becton's tenure when John Sunnunu (sic) became White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush and was given one position to fill and that was the FEMA Director job. The former Governor of New Hampshire and General Becton according to sworn testimony before NRC licensing boards had a number of phone calls about Seabrook. Interestingly, General Becton was never informed and did not know how anti-nuclear General Guiffrida had been. Throughout Becton's service the Armed Services Committee in the Senate still confirmed the FEMA Associate Director for National Preparedness and oddly enough that Directorate did not house the Federal Civil Defense Program which was housed in the State and Local Programs Directorate.

Another oddity of Becton's service was that his departure in June 1989 was to be followed shortly by the occurrence of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in California and Hurricane Hugo in the U.S. Virgin Islands and S. Carolina which indicated how rusty FEMA had become from lack of a major catastrophe during the Reagan years. It would have been interesting to see how FEMA operated in such events under General Becton.
Post-FEMA of course, General Becton for 18 months had the thankless task of trying to head the D.C. School system. Unfortunately, he failed to understand the depth of outright corruption in that system and his do-good efforts were not well received. Despite everything, next to James Lee Witt's long and successful tenure as FEMA Director, General Becton kept FEMA going as an organization and agency when its very survival as an Executive Branch organization was threatened by both the WH and NSC and even OMB. The issuance of the next to last NSDD [NSDD-259 (1987)]concerning Civil Defense making that program administratively all-hazard was also an achievement.