Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Profiles-The Independent FEMA-Director James Lee Witt-Part I

I went to a book signing of James Lee Witt's personal memoir of his FEMA years at Olson's Clarendon book store several years ago. Got my signed copy at that event. "Stronger In the Broken Places" is an interesting memoir and openly acknowledged is assistance given to James Lee by another. It should be required reading for anyone past or present who has been or who might be involved in FEMA issues. Only one other Director, Julius Becton has written an autobiography and that also should be read but that book understates I think his FEMA role and accomplishments. In many ways James Lee Witt's book also does the same. Since these were the best of the two Directors of FEMA I served under and numbers 1 and 3 in longevity both their full careers cannot possibly be captured in a blog posting but will only provide my own gloss and take on both of these fine men.
James Lee Witt had been a county judge in YELL COUNTY Arkansas like another County Judge before him Harry S. Truman, some may remember the name.
Witt arrived in Washington to be shepherded around by the usual suspects including another fine performance by Marth Braddock, head of Congressional Relations several times in FEMA and under both parties had a significant FEMA career, over 14 years if memories serve. Whatever criticisms I have of Martha as head of or participant in Congressional relations she was the best of the best at getting FEMA political appointees through the confirmation process and did so again with James Lee. Confirmed in spring 1993, James Lee arrived to face several interesting past events. First the WTC first bombing before his confirmation. Second, the NAPA (National Academy of Public Administration) report issued in February 1993--"Coping with Catastrophe"; and third the issuance of the blue-ribbon panel report-the so-call TREFRY Report on personnel security issues in FEMA.
All were to have consequences for James Lee Witt's time as Director. William Tidball, an SES with ties to Bill Clinton from his {Clinto's] time as Arkansas governor and during the Mariel Boatlift when Cuban's escaped from Ft. Chaffee and burned down a town in Arkansas costing Bill Clinton the Governor's office. Bill Tidball had been the FEMA rep at Ft Chaffee for some period of time. Bill also had graduated from college in Arkansas.
James Lee's arrival was on the heels of Hurricane Andrew which had precipitated huge criticism of FEMA and its officals and employees. It also was the cause of the NAPA report. That report concluded that Presidents get the EM system they want. Well, James Lee was not only wanted by Clinton but he rejected the WH personnel offices recommendation of another candidate and sent a note back to WH personnel that he only would accept James Lee. That relationship was to prosper over the enormous mid-west flooding in the Upper Mississippi and Missouri in the spring of 1993. Bill Clinton embraced the often orphaned role of federal disaster relief and he and James Lee Witt met together with the governor's to strategize on the approach to be taken. NO other President has even done this although many have visited, some several times, the sites of disasters. Clinton viewed the event as an opportunity. According to information provided to me James Lee had been specifically ordered to focus FEMA on natural disasters even though its portfolio as assigned by statute and Executive Order was broader. Bill Clinton was not the first to do this and as far as I know this was never put in writing. The Reagan Era NSEC, National System for Emergency Coordination had also done this when issued in January 1988. James Lee also paid attention to the members of Congress and they respected the fact that he was the first FEMA director ever who had been elected to public office. James Lee was able to forge good relations with the Chairs of the Appropriation Committees which was a crucial step in his success. Also acting on the Blue-Ribbon Panel report he reduced the number of personnel in FEMA with security clearances by almost 50% so that for the first time stovepiped personnel, some of whom had totally misused the personnel security sytem, were able to share critical information, often represented as classified when it in fact was not classified. NSDD-47[1982] is the best example and was the first Presidentially signed all-hazards document.
Thus the FEMA focus was definitely changed and with the end of the Cold War there is no doubt that FEMA was able to become a better performing agency. James Lee Witt also promoted a number of career civil servants to the SES intead of bringing in outsiders which had been the pattern since FEMA's inception. This also improved morale and in some cases competence.
But hey fate intervened! The Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 demonstrated that naturally occuring events were not to be the only ones in FEMA's portfolio. Witt went directly to Oklahoma within hours of the bombing and was one of the first senior officials on scene. This was his operating style throughout his tenure and despite some shortcomings in public speaking which he was able to eliminate over his tenure, he was the only Director of FEMA ever other than Joe Allbaugh that saw his role as an on-site leader. One might ask what he would have done in multiple simultaneous events but that opportunity did not arise.
The ability to understand Washington and its intricies is a very difficult thing to do and even after a lifetime studying and growing up in Washington I am still almost surprised dail by events and its processes. Of course the corruption caused by the need for campaign funds has created a direct threat to our democracy (Republic)! Becasuse Bill Clinton was such a skilled politician however and because he gave full backing to James Lee's FEMA it was a successful venture and much improved over previous administrations. But it also had a very very different role under FEMA and it no longer had pretensions to be a major player in several arenas in which it had failed bureacratically because of its lack of horsepower or just because the depth of its leaderhsip was so shallow. Even James Lee never finally decided the role of FEMA, either as safety net when other departments and agencies failed to perform their assigned response missions, or whether FEMA was to only a funding and information source for other departments and agencies and the State and local governments. FEMA has always given mission assignments to other key federal players and even NGO's like the ARC {American Red Cross) and paid their overhead (often exhorbinant) but it has not been a command and control entity. See other posts to elaborate on this discussion. James Lee Witt's full backing by President Clinton was widely known and his elevation in the beginning of the second term to EX OFFICIO cabinet status sealed the deal. FEMA, however, itself was not and never has been event in its days of independence a Cabinet rank organization and of course now is essentially a subcabinet bureau within DHS.
I have designed this Part I to be a background for more parts to come and a more detailed analysis of the impact both good and bad of James Lee Witt and FEMA during his time and some of the delayed impacts of his administration. There always is an argument that like the Captain of a sailing ship you can only be responsible for the time you are on duty but there are some who know that the long term secondary and tertiary impacts of decisions and events can have impacts direct and indirect in the future. Without doubt however James Lee Witt was and still is the first and only FEMA Director to survive justifably in my opinion as having had an overall successful tenure. More to follow!