Op-Ed

Keep FEMA Where It Is

Jeremy Shapiro and Michael E. O’Hanlon

After the Katrina travesty, many now want to undo the decision to place the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) inside the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Some even propose abolishing FEMA. They argue FEMA’s new bureaucratic position may well have hurt its ability to respond quickly when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last summer. While the critics have a reasonable case that relocating FEMA was a mistake — or at least a distraction from more urgent tasks of preparing for natural disasters and terrorist strikes — their proposed cure would be worse than the disease.

The United States clearly needs a federal organization for coordinating the governmental response to natural and man-made disasters. But the myriad tasks such an organization may have to perform mean it has no ideal bureaucratic location. Whether FEMA is inside DHS or not, it will have to coordinate closely with many other actors across various institutional boundaries. Some, such as the Coast Guard, are within DHS. Many, such as the military and the state and local authorities, are not.

Rather than force FEMA to redesign its logo yet again, we should fix FEMA’s problems in place. The history of the military special operations forces helps show the way. After Vietnam, special operations force became something of a bureaucratic orphan. They were too small and too spread out across the military services to gain an effective voice in Defense Department decisionmaking. As a result, they were deemed irrelevant, they were denied budget resources and training opportunities, and their leaders did not enjoy access to key decisionmakers.

The result was Desert One — the failed Iran hostage rescue mission of April 1980. Not having conducted joint-service training under realistic conditions, they never even made it close to the American hostages in Tehran. Eight U.S. military personnel died in what was essentially a bureaucratic tragedy. The event became the symbol of a U.S. military in apparently terminal decline after the defeat in Vietnam.

But the solution was not to abolish special operations forces or to pull them out of the Defense Department.

Rather, the Desert One experience helped inspire a major defense reform movement, leading to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols bill. The reform created Special Operations Command and gave its commander high stature and an independent budget. It also strengthened the power of the regional combatant commanders charged with fighting our wars.

They were given much more direct access to the defense secretary and the president, as well as a greater role in the Pentagon’s budgeting process. As powerful actors with a laser focus on practical tasks, the combatant commanders recognized the value of special operations forces and of coordinating and training across service boundaries.

While joint-service peacetime training still leaves a bit to be desired, the Defense Department did get serious about rehearsing wartime missions in the most realistic ways imaginable. Successes in invading Panama and Operation Desert Storm soon demonstrated the reforms’ value.

The analogy is not perfect, but many of these lessons are applicable to FEMA’s place within DHS. What FEMA most needs are sufficient resources, a voice at the DHS table, a clear line of communication to the secretary of homeland security and the president, and the support and authority of the latter as it interacts with other federal, state, local and private-sector players.

This means, most obviously, FEMA directors must be chosen for their professional background and competence, just as Defense seeks to place its very best in the combatant commander positions. The secretary of homeland security should also be in constant contact with the FEMA director during crises — providing bureaucratic clout to the director of a small agency. Finally, between crises, DHS needs to train as it will operate, which is to say across institutional boundaries in configurations that create synergy. For example, chem-bio response teams from Defense and from state and local agencies should practice more frequently with FEMA personnel. Owners of skyscrapers and malls and stadiums should work with FEMA experts to think of how to mitigate their vulnerabilities to terrorist attack.

Of course, no reform will obviate the need for individual personnel to perform well under the specific circumstances of an actual crisis. For all its progress after Goldwater-Nichols, the Defense Department did not handle Somalia well in the fall of 1993, nor Iraq after the initial battles.

No organizational tinkering can eliminate the need for good people and good preparation. On the other hand, ongoing and excessive reorganization can make it next to impossible for even the best people to prepare for the missions they may have to face.