April 26, 2013 by Tim McDonnell
Five U.S. presidents gathered this week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for the dedication of George W. Bush’s presidential library. Events like this always come with a media flash. After all, it’s the first time the five living presidents have been in one place together since 2009, and the 43rd president himself has largely kept out of the public eye since Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office.
Beyond the initial public spectacle and carefully stage-managed press statements, presidential library openings have a deeper significance for the American people. They represent the ever-permeable frontier where a former president’s need to influence history’s judgment meets the need of the people to understand what happened on each president’s watch.
This week’s dedication gives us a timely opportunity to revisit an important chapter in Russ Baker’s book “Family of Secrets,” which describes what happened when the Bush family got its scion, George W., elected president. Consider this brief quote from the section entitled “Domestic Disturbance” that’s chillingly on point for this week:
“Thus began one of the most extraordinary clampdowns in American history. It culminated in November, 2001, when W. took time out of the frenzied response to the 9/11 attacks to issue an executive order declaring that a former president could assert executive privilege over his papers against the will of the incumbent…The bias was consistently toward secrecy, rather than toward coming clean with the public.” – Family of Secrets, Page 467
At a time when we’re looking to our leaders for more transparency, we are instead confronted with snowballing evidence of what Noam Chomsky calls “manufactured consent.” By connecting the dots for us so expertly in “Family of Secrets,” Russ Baker reminds us to keep asking tough questions and staking our claim to the truths that former presidents are so eager to bury or spin out of sight.
Here is Chapter 23 of the book Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years, by WhoWhatWhy Editor-in-Chief Russ Baker:
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some details have been omitted for space.)
As we have seen, a perceptual gap is at the essence of the Bush enterprise. The actuality has tended toward wars for resources and the preservation of class prerogative, all abetted by secrecy, intimidation, and the dark arts of both psychological and covert ops. The appearance has been of a genial George H.W. (“Poppy”) and a born-again if bumptious George W.
Their campaign themes played off these perceptions: compassionate conservatism and an ability to work with political adversaries; a patrician concern for the environment and a desire to balance stewardship of natural resources with private property rights; a desire to shrink the federal government but only so as to empower people to control their own lives and destinies; an aversion to liberal—and costly—nation-building exercises abroad. These were the polemical packages; and in their different ways, both Poppy and son conveyed a sense of rectitude and traditional values, even as their campaigns were run with the hard and cynical calculus of political hit jobs.
Poppy, as mentioned, was more discreet and could be persuaded to act in a responsible manner. An example was when Richard Darman, his budget director, convinced him to raise taxes to help control the deficit. The right never forgave him, and W. was not about to repeat the mistake.
What Poppy had done quietly, even furtively, W. often did with the swagger of the entitled prince. The result was a government that in essence was not unlike those of third world oligarchs—a vehicle for military dominance and bountiful favors for supporters and friends. The ruler would preside unchallenged. Dissonant truths would be suppressed, and the tellers of them banished.
Virtually the first order of business after the 2001 inauguration had been to make sure that no nasty secrets came back to embarrass the new occupant of the White House—or his father. Thus began one of the most extraordinary clampdowns in American history. It culminated in November, 2001, when W. took time out of the frenzied response to the 9/11 attacks to issue an executive order declaring that a former president could assert executive privilege over his papers against the will of the incumbent. In doing so, Bush overturned a measure Ronald Reagan had instituted just before he left office. At the same time, Bush’s order allows a sitting president to block the release of a predecessor’s papers, even if that predecessor had approved the release. The bias was consistently toward secrecy, rather than toward coming clean with the public.
There followed a full- scale assault on open- government laws. Agencies that had once been happy to provide documents turned suspicious and at times hostile. Archives were locked up and the affairs of Bush’s father, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney in previous administrations were essentially closed to view. Just one example: the administration began dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency’s network of technical libraries, which, among other things, made pollution and hazardous substance discharge data available to the public. In 2007, Congress ordered the libraries restored.
For his part, Poppy chose to put his presidential library and papers at Texas A&M University, a hub of military recruitment and one of the few American universities with direct links to the CIA. The head of the library, and later of the university itself, was Robert Gates, who had been CIA director under Poppy. With Gates in charge, the presidential library was built on donations from oil sheikhdoms and U.S. oilmen.1 No surprise, this. Throughout the administrations of the two George Bushes, and in the period of exile between, we would see the old crew: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Gates, and James A. Baker III. When the Iraq situation grew increasingly untenable and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had to go, Gates became his successor. When the clamor for an inquiry into 9/11 became too great, Poppy’s lieutenant Baker cochaired an investigative panel. In charge of evaluating wiretap requests? Baker’s son, James A. Baker IV.2
The extended Bush family, which had helped Poppy write history, now was closing ranks to prevent disclosure of what they had done—and were still doing. The term “library” was turned upside down, and became not a way to make information available but rather a way to bury it. It became about disinformation instead of information. It is fitting that such a monument was funded by oil millions from essentially closed, despotic regimes supported by the United States.
In addition, back in Washington there was an unprecedented effort to reclassify thousands of documents and remove them from public view. Other documents simply disappeared. Data were slanted for political ends, often for the convenience of corporations. “Secrecy in the Bush administration is not limited to one or two individuals,” Steven Aftergood, director of the nonprofit Project on Government Secrecy, told me in 2002. “It is a guiding philosophy.”3
Indeed it was. As we have seen in preceding chapters, governance and spycraft merged under the Bushes, with a cynical and Machiavellian edge. Secrecy, destruction of documents, creation of alibis, control of information flow, and the rewriting of history—these were not occasional exercises but rather operating principles.
During W.’s Texas governorship, Alberto Gonzales had instructed staffers to obtain their own private e-mail accounts for in-house communication. The purpose was to keep the public business from the public. Later, during W.’s presidency, it emerged that Karl Rove and other staffers were using accounts at the Republican National Committee, not the White House, to communicate with each other for a similar reason. Later they claimed that most of those e-mails had been accidentally deleted.4
As White House counsel, Gonzales told W. himself to stop using e-mail altogether. Shortly after taking office, the president sent off a good-bye message to a select group of “dear friends” and family members, top aides and key supporters. “My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests,” Bush wrote. “Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you.”5
Dick Cheney was fanatical about secrecy, as noted by the Washington Post in its insightful 2007 series on the vice president: “Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped Treated As: Top Secret . . . Cheney declined to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally released no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel boldly asserted that ‘the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch,’ and is therefore exempt from rules governing either.”6
Signs of Intelligence
This obsession involved a double standard of no small proportions. While the administration sought to protect its own secrets at all costs, it wanted to know everything about everyone else, including ordinary citizens. As the extent of the administration’s spying came out, it became clear that the White House had skipped even the modest requirement that a judge be consulted on domestic surveillance cases—modest because over 99 percent of applications submitted for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approval are approved each year.7 Bush and Cheney didn’t like that law, so they just ignored it. Even telecommunications companies had been persuaded—or strong-armed—to turn over private records of their customers.8
Anyone who had lived in an authoritarian or totalitarian society might have felt a chill of recognition. Few could feel comfortable knowing that a Karl Rove might have access to their personal data. Reassurances from the White House were not helped by the cavalier leaking of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame as retribution when Joseph Wilson, her husband and a former diplomat, blew the whistle on the administration’s falsification of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.9 The Plame affair showed the administration’s willingness to effectively shoot one of its own soldiers to advance strategic ends. The White House even covered up the actual shooting of a soldier—hiding the fact that the heroic professional football player Pat Tillman, who had volunteered for Afghanistan duty after 9/11, died not at the hands of the enemy but by “friendly fire.”
Politicization of intelligence was also apparent in W.’s appointments to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), a little-known entity with super-high security clearances. W. initially followed the family course and selected Brent Scowcroft, his father’s national security adviser, to be chairman. But he forced out Scowcroft in 2004, after the retired general’s criticism of W.’s Iraq occupation began to circulate publicly. The new chairman was James Langdon, the energy lawyer who played a role in W.’s Texas Rangers deal.
It is common for big donors to get places on the PFIAB, but W. went whole hog.10 Bill Clinton had appointed a former secretary of defense, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a former Speaker of the House. W.’s picks included his old oil company rescuer and Rangers baseball partner William DeWitt, and also Ray Hunt, the Dallas oil billionaire who was a major financial backer of W.’s. As a member of the Halliburton board, Hunt had played a major role in determining CEO Dick Cheney’s lucrative pay package. The oilman’s former top aide James Oberwetter was appointed as W.’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Hunt, sitting on a gold mine of secret information at PFIAB, would, coincidentally or not, obtain an exclusive drilling contract in the Kurdish parts of Iraq after the invasion.11
The primacy of connections over qualifications was underscored when W. chose his old friend and top fund-raiser Don Evans to join Hunt on the board. After leaving his post as commerce secretary, Evans briefly considered an offer to run a large Russian oil company. In the end, that was deemed too controversial for a Bush lieutenant, and instead Evans became CEO of the Financial Services Forum, an organization representing twenty giant financial institutions from around the world that do business in the United States.
The growing role of the corporate world in spying was underlined in 2007, when the government revealed that 70 percent of its intelligence bud get was contracted out to private firms. In essence, the Bush administration was putting the most secretive part of government into outside hands with little oversight.
Authoritarianism thrives in a climate of fear, and the administration invoked fear continually. Fear justified invading Iraq; fear justified spying on American citizens; fear was the trump card in vanquishing political opposition. In July 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that America’s terrorist watch list had hit one million names. One month later, a congressional investigation concluded that a half- billion- dollar emergency program to retool the flawed watch list was “on the brink of collapse.”12
But when it came to security, there was the usual exemption for large corporate entities. Though grandmothers were strip-searched at airports, the Bush team resisted calls for more stringent security at ports, power and chemical plants, and other vulnerable sites. Otherwise, the tattoo of terror was relentless, especially during the political high season. There was a steady stream of warnings, often in the form of so-called orange alerts, in the months leading up to the 2004 election. Even when other nations found potential terrorists, the administration sought political gains, in one case prompting complaints from the British that the White House was pushing for premature arrests before full intelligence gains had been realized.13
The psychology of fear tends to seep outward, and to justify ever greater intrusions. It was a short step from perceived security threats to the political inconvenience of oppositional speech. W. made it a pressing objective to put an ideologue in charge of “reforming” the Public Broadcasting Service—not so much for its purportedly liberal bias, but simply because it exhibited independence.14 In one of many examples of what certainly looks like harassment of critics, Jim Moore, the journalist who first asked W. about his National Guard record, found himself on a no-fly list.15 And so he joined a long list of people—from Bill Burkett to Bill White to John Kerry—who had challenged the Bush apparatus and suffered the consequences.
Bush and Cheney had campaigned on the conservative principle of limited government. But their actions upon attaining office showed that they weren’t interested in limited government, so much as in one that was theirs. This was evident in many ways: the intrusions on basic American rights such as voting; state sanctioning of some religions through government “faith-based” contracts and other policies; the cynical uses of power for political expediency and personal enrichment; the secrecy that withheld the people’s business from the people; the cronyism and self-dealing that treated government and its bounty as a personal entitlement and fiefdom.
Republican National Committee chairman Kenneth Mehlman was not subtle about this: “One of the things that can happen in Washington when you work in an agency is that you forget who sent you there. And it’s important to remind people—you’re George Bush people . . . If there’s one empire I want built, it’s the George Bush empire.”16 The quaint notion that federal employees are actually responsible to the people who pay their salaries seems to have gone down the drain as well.
To be sure, they continued to invoke the banner hoisted by GOP activist Grover Norquist, who famously declared, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” But in practice, the only parts that went down the drain were the ones that were distasteful to friends. The Food and Drug Administration, the agency that monitors the safety of what Americans put into their bodies, faced drastic budget cuts and restrictions in its abilities to inspect products before they went to market.17 At one congressional hearing, former FDA chief counsel Peter Barton Hutt said the agency was “barely hanging on by its fingertips.” He begged for more funding and skilled personnel.18
Faced with the overwhelming evidence of climate change, the Bush administration seemed content to pass the buck. Though the Supreme Court provided the Environmental Protection Agency with the power to create emissions standards for motor vehicles, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson found that even his agency’s modest suggestions fell on deaf White House ears. He had his staff write a draft of new regulations for limiting carbon emissions, but once sent to the White House, it “fell into a black hole.”19
Nearly every federal agency became politicized. The regulated were controlling the regulators, and cooking the books. A few career employees were willing to speak out. At NASA, leading climate scientist James Hansen revealed how the White House had worked to suppress the truth about climate change.20 David Kuo, former deputy director of the office of faith-based initiatives, claimed that the White House used taxpayer funds to plan events that recruited evangelical votes for the Republicans.
Government spending mainly took a hit in areas such as food stamps, energy assistance, community development, public housing, and the like. But once the Bush team had inflicted pain on the needy, they opened the public spigot of largesse for their friends. The well-connected benefited from contracts, jobs, and the indulgence of forbearing regulators. Financial institutions were rewarded for recklessness. Just as Poppy Bush had sheltered savings and loan executives from the consequences of their own greed, W. bailed out big investment houses such as Bear Stearns that had rewarded their executives with giant bonuses for taking even bigger—and ultimately dangerous—risks with other people’s money. These moves violated the bedrock conservative principle that people must bear the consequences for their own actions. Yet these gamblers were taken care of, and W. himself was never made to answer for the policy. Even a measure presented as in the public interest, like the Medicare prescription benefit plan, was essentially a political play, with a Cinderella’s slipper for the pharmaceutical industry thrown in.
In 2007, W. vetoed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which would have utilized an increased tobacco tax to provide health coverage to millions of uninsured children. Bush’s decision reflected his distaste for anything resembling universal health care. “After all,” the president suggested, “you [can] just go to an emergency room.”21 As Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out, the S-CHIP program would have cost less over five years than the country spends on four months in Iraq. So W.’s opposition to the program was philosophical in nature. After all, if the nation were to experience a federal health care program that worked, what would stop people from demanding universal health care?
Krugman saw this as representing a fundamental Bush doctrine:
He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.22
W.’s crony statism and his contempt for regulation helped plunge the nation into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Even before the crash of 2008, he presided over the poorest job- creation rate in modern history. And according to a series of USA Today–Gallup polls, only once in Bush’s eight-year reign did even a slight majority of respondents characterize the economy as “excellent” or “good” rather than “fair” or “poor.”23
The cronyism was rampant, the corruption rife. The name of the GOP’s favorite super-lobbyist and fixer, Jack Abramoff, became a synonym for “business as usual.” If one did not believe in government by the people to begin with—as the Bush crew didn’t—what difference did such behavior make? How can one degrade that which one already holds in contempt? The result was evident in scandals large and small. Every week came new revelations about no-bid contracts awarded to contributors, loyal functionaries hired despite dubious qualifications, regulations and data skewed on behalf of powerful industries, and on and on.
For the cooperative and the connected, lack of qualifications was no bar. It became so evident that the New Republic devoted an entire issue to indexing the Bush “hackocracy.”24 A typical appointment was Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Homeland Security Department.
Ms. Myers is the niece of General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She had recently married the chief of staff for Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of Homeland Security. This led Frank Rich to label the appointment a “nepotistic twofer.”25 Even conservative columnist Michelle Malkin noted, “Great contacts, but what exactly are the 36-year-old lawyer’s main credentials to solve . . . dire national security problems?” She answered: “Zip, Nada, Nil.”26 Myers’s main qualification: working for Kenneth Starr, the man who prosecuted the Monica Lewinsky case.
Regulatory agencies hung out the sign: Foxes, Report to Hen House Duty. All manner of chemical, nuclear, and coal industry executives and the like rushed in to provide oversight of their former (and future) employers.
Even when the administration seemed to be taking care of ordinary people, there was always a skunk at the picnic’s close. The historic overhaul of Medicare was within a few years marred by revelations of fraud and improper payments to medical equipment manufacturers, to the tune of $2.8 billion.27
All in the Family
It seemed there was always room at the table for contributors and friends. It wasn’t just the occasional Billy Carter or Roger Clinton who regarded the White House as a winning lottery ticket. It was an entire clan that had built its political rhetoric around the need to curb government spending.
The dossier is thick. Back in 1985, while Poppy was vice president, third son Neil Mallon Bush had become a director of the Silverado Savings and Loan. Soon he was embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals in U.S. history—one that cost taxpayers about one billion dollars.28 In February 1993, a month after Poppy Bush left office, the World Trade Center was bombed. In the wake of that, an American firm with Kuwaiti backing got a contract to provide security to the buildings, and Poppy’s fourth son, Marvin, joined the board, remaining until 2000. W.’s brother Jeb, the one Poppy and Barbara thought would rise highest, set up shop in Miami and established strong ties to the right- wing Cuban exile community. He was quickly brought under the wing of Armando Codina, a real estate developer and longtime political supporter of the family and its staunch backing of the Cuba embargo; Jeb got a 40 percent share of the real estate company’s profits without investing in the firm. The duo were bailed out for a loan default with taxpayers footing the bill, in excess of $3 million.29
With a Bush back in the White House, the process required a bit more subtlety. Neil Bush, brother of the “education president,” backed by money from Kuwait and elsewhere, was busy selling educational software to the Saudis.30 William “Bucky” Bush, Poppy’s younger brother and W.’s uncle, sat on the board of ESSI, a St. Louis–based firm that received multiple no-bid contracts from the Pentagon.31 One was for equipment to help search for—and protect soldiers from—what turned out to be Iraq’s non-existent store of chemical and biological weapons.32 Friends of the family also got a piece of the taxpayer’s dollar. Ernie Ladd, W.’s faithful buddy since his days supervising Bush’s community service at Project PULL in inner-city Houston, started getting military contracts for spray-on plastic coating.33
And then of course there was Poppy. After leaving the White House, he began accepting handouts from grateful past beneficiaries of one generation of Bushes and those hopeful for largesse from the next. In 1998, Poppy addressed an audience in Tokyo on behalf of telecom company Global Crossing and accepted stock in the soon-to-go-public corporation in lieu of his normal $100,000 overseas speaking fee. Within a year, that stock was worth $14.4 million.34
Poppy also became an adviser to, and speechmaker for, the Carlyle Group, a secretive private equity firm that made its name buying low- valued defense contractors, using connections to secure government contracts, then selling the firms at huge profits. Poppy joined Carlyle in 1995 and earns between $80,000 and $100,000 per speech on its behalf.35 As a former president with access to CIA briefings, Poppy is an indispensable asset to Carlyle. “Imagine what a global enterprise, that does large amounts of business with arms contractors and foreign governments, could do with weekly CIA briefings,” wrote business journalist Dan Briody, author of a book on the Carlyle Group.36
Whether or not Carlyle was a direct beneficiary of inside information, the company’s investors have made more than $6.6 billion off the Iraq War. Referring to the beginning of the war, Carlyle’s chief investment officer said: “It’s the best eighteen months we ever had. We made money and we made it fast.”37
The myriad cozy financial deals involving Bushes and their friends and associates have attracted only sporadic media interest. This is in contrast to the frenzied coverage of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investment in the Arkansas real estate venture Whitewater. The couple actually lost money in the deal, and an independent investigation headed by Clinton nemesis Kenneth Starr found no evidence of illegality. Other Democrats, in particular Barack Obama, saw every aspect of their personal lives scrutinized, often with the most nefarious possible interpretation.
The Bush crew’s political operation required exemption from, and therefore control over, the law. Thus the infamous White House crusade to fire uncooperative United States attorneys—the highest prosecutors, each supervising his or her own regional office. Most of the targets, though loyal Republicans, had refused to pursue prosecutions that were overtly political in nature.38 Even when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stepped down in the scandal’s wake, his nominally independent- minded replacement, Michael Mukasey, declined to pursue charges against the Justice Department. “Not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime,” he said.39 That same approach helped former Cheney aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, whose jail sentence was commuted after he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame case.
In 2005, W. nominated Harriet Miers, his friend and fellow Texan, to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court—even though she had never before served as a judge and lacked distinction among her legal peers. Miers’s main qualification was that she had handled some of W.’s most delicate matters in the 1990s. In W.’s gubernatorial campaign, Miers “was deemed to be just the right person to inoculate George W. Bush against any further inquiries into his legal and business dealings.”40 As detailed in chapter 18, it was Miers who helped Bush escape scrutiny for his membership in the controversial Rainbo Club. Thus, even the highest court in the land was to house a Bush family enforcer.
Because of their contempt for government, Bush and Cheney ended up flubbing the most essential function of government from a conservative standpoint: security and defense.
The tendentious justification for the invasion of Iraq was only one obvious example. In some ways, an even more striking one was the fiasco of the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The botched handling of Katrina cut deep; and the reason for it was the same as for the other derelictions and misdeeds. Government was to be a honeypot for cronies and supporters, and a grindstone for ideological axes. It did not exist to solve problems—and therefore under Bush it ended up creating more of them.
Partners in Disaster
In late August 2005, what would become one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history—and certainly the most costly—was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans. The warnings from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center grew increasingly ominous. In charge of preparing a response to this mounting threat was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was run by a little-known figure named Michael D. Brown.
As a forewarned nation braced for the worst, and Gulf Coast residents frantically prepared to weather the storm, George Bush and his top aides showed little concern. The president opted not to cut his vacation short. He had finished the photo ops of himself clearing brush in Crawford, Texas, and by then was in California. A day after the hurricane made its second landfall, the news carried another photo op, of the president strumming a guitar. Vice president Dick Cheney had emerged from his often-bunkered lifestyle to enjoy some fly-fishing in Wyoming. As for the country’s disaster management agency, the only FEMA official actually in New Orleans— Marty J. Bahamonde—was there by accident. He had been visiting on business and had tried to leave but could not because of the clogged roads.
FEMA chief Michael Brown made it to Baton Rouge, a city seventy-five miles from New Orleans, but he seemed out of reach. As Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf states and wiped out one of America’s signature cities, stories of incompetence and disorganization began trickling out. FEMA staff couldn’t find Brown. Brown wasn’t aware of developments familiar to anyone with a television. By the time he was, he couldn’t get through to the governor of Louisiana; he couldn’t get the president of the United States to pay attention.
Worst of all, there was no evidence of advance planning for a disaster of this magnitude, even though such planning was Brown’s primary job. At the peak of the crisis, he was seen working on an organizational chart. As a critical levee collapsed and one of the country’s largest port cities started to slip beneath the water, Bahamonde fired off a series of increasingly desperate e-mails. On August 31, he e-mailed Brown directly: “I know you know, the situation is past critical . . . Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water.” The response came, several hours later. “It is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner,” it said.41 Four days after the hurricane hit, Bush arrived to survey the damage and famously proclaimed, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
But two weeks into the disaster, with the Bush administration facing its worst PR nightmare, Brown was finally replaced as on-site manager by an experienced outsider.
When it was over, the Gulf Coast was devastated, and New Orleans in particular. The city’s protective levee system was swamped; 80 percent of the city—along with many of its neighboring areas—was underwater for weeks. Destruction stretched from Louisiana through Mississippi into Alabama. The images of frightened families clinging to rooftops awaiting rescue, of elderly people who died strapped to their beds in retirement homes, of gun-toting vigilantes protecting wealthy areas against looters—these were the legacy of Brownie’s heckuva job.
Despite the fact that the warnings had been more than ample, with accurate forecasts and lots of advance notice from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, more than 1,800 people died, and damage was estimated to exceed $81 billion. The agency that is charged to act, didn’t. Brown later blamed state and local officials for the slow response, but it was clear to the nation that he and his agency had fallen down on the job.
The state of FEMA under George W. Bush stood in stark contrast to its condition under Bill Clinton. The latter had inherited an agency riddled with patronage. For example, Bush Sr. had appointed as director Wallace Stickney, a former neighbor of John Sununu, his chief of staff.42 Stickney, who lacked crisis management experience, presided over FEMA’s inept response to Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew during the first and last years of the elder Bush’s term. Many observers believe the administration’s handling of these events contributed to Poppy’s loss to Clinton in 1992.
Clinton, by contrast, appointed a seasoned pro to head the agency—James Lee Witt, who had been in charge of disaster management in Arkansas. Clinton even gave the FEMA director a seat in his cabinet. Morale soared, and a bipartisan group of senators actually sought to keep Witt on indefinitely, drafting legislation to make the FEMA directorship a longer-term, fixed position. Even George W. Bush praised Witt—and then canned him.
In 2001, W. appointed his longtime enforcer Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh had almost no relevant experience or qualifications, beyond serving as the governor’s liaison to emergency agencies during minor crises in Texas. At FEMA, he would have more than eight thousand employees and a four-billion- dollar budget. Allbaugh was confirmed by the Senate after minimal scrutiny in a 91 – 0 vote. He became head of FEMA in February 2001.
Allbaugh soon embarked on a Nixonian purge and a series of internal investigations into everything undertaken by the Witt administration. Allbaugh’s lengthiest inquiry was into a headdress that used to hang on Witt’s wall, a token of appreciation from a Native American tribe in recognition of his efforts following the Oklahoma City bombing. Someone said it might contain feathers from the protected bald eagle—a federal offense—but the probe, which even involved the FBI, fizzled when they turned out to be dyed chicken feathers.
Abandoning a tradition of placing civil-service professionals in vital posts, Allbaugh quickly staffed the agency with loyalists, many of them political operatives with no professional experience in emergency disaster management. Possessing little experience with large- scale disasters, Allbaugh was happy to embrace the administration’s view of FEMA as a bloated entitlement program in need of drastic cutbacks. “His position was that the states ought to take a bigger role,” said Reid.
At FEMA, as throughout the administration, the foxes had taken over the hen house and were partying up. Out the door, one by one, went the experienced disaster-relief managers, and in came the political opportunists and the industry lobbyists. “Many of their skilled management team left,” said Steve Kanstoroom, an independent fraud detection expert. “You had a train running down the tracks with nobody driving it.”45
As Governor Bush’s chief of staff and campaign manager, Allbaugh had pushed the antigovernment rhetoric. Yet the moment he left government, he began finding ways for it to spend more, not less, taxpayer money. Following his departure from FEMA, he quickly formed the lobbying firm Allbaugh Company with his wife, Diane, an attorney, to cash in on his years in government. Newsweek said Joe Allbaugh has “the hide of a rhino” when it comes to criticism of conflicts of interest, and it showed.
Bad news was good news where Joe Allbaugh was concerned. Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, became one of Allbaugh’s biggest lobbying clients. Its then- subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root would get at least sixty- one million dollars’ worth of Katrina business from the federal government.48
Allbaugh’s post-FEMA ventures were not restricted to the domestic disaster business. His departure from government and entrance into defense contracting took place precisely as the invasion of Iraq unfolded. September 11 had not only offered a pretext for invading Iraq; it also set in motion a boom for military contractors, which had been concerned about the diminishing demand for weaponry in a post- Communist era. At the same time it justified the creation of a vast new domestic security industry, another lucrative component of the military-industrial complex. Both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security now had endless programs to fund in the name of a new kind of war—carried out abroad and at home, against an invisible enemy, and with no expiration date. The annual corporate reports of government contractors practically gushed over the new opportunities. “I think our shareholders understand why we’re in this business,” said Halliburton chief executive David J. Lesar.49
A COG in the Big Wheel
Why did Joe Allbaugh even want to run FEMA? In the first days of the Clinton-Bush transition, amid speculation about who might get what post, Allbaugh’s name was bandied about in connection with a few positions, among them White House chief of staff. No one mentioned FEMA, but then another factor came into play: Allbaugh’s close relationship with Dick Cheney, who saw FEMA’s principal role less as helping Americans during an emergency than as maintaining White House control during one.
Few people realize that Joe Allbaugh even played a role in Dick Cheney’s advance to the vice presidency. In 2000, while Allbaugh was W.’s presidential campaign manager, Cheney was brought in to help research the backgrounds of prospective running mates. When Cheney concluded that he himself was the ideal choice,50 the job of vetting Cheney’s qualifications went to Allbaugh. He quickly signed off on the former congressman and defense secretary, which cleared Cheney’s path to the White House. To be sure, given Cheney’s prior security clearances, Allbaugh’s scrutiny was probably less than thorough. In any case, the Allbaughs and Cheneys quickly felt at home with each other—literally so. When the Cheneys moved into the vice presidential residence in 2001, the Allbaughs bought Cheney’s town house in McLean, Virginia, for $690,000. And Cheney put Allbaugh onto his secretive energy task force.
FEMA had been created in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter through an executive order; before that, emergency and disaster services were scattered among a host of agencies. From the beginning, FEMA was seen as a vehicle of White House command and control, in times of war more than natural disasters. Samuel Huntington, who drafted the presidential memorandum creating the agency, summed up the basic concept in a book, The Crisis of Democracy. “A government which lacks authority,” he wrote, “will have little ability, short of a cataclysmic crisis, to impose on its people the sacrifices which may be necessary to deal with foreign policy problems and defense.”51 Carter’s FEMA director, John Macy, had emphasized that preparation for natural disasters would take a backseat to defense against nuclear, biological, and terror threats.52 It was principally under Bill Clinton that FEMA focused on disaster relief.
The Bush-Cheney view of FEMA was an almost pure expression of their underlying philosophy. For all their talk of limited government, Bush-Cheney did everything they could to expand the power and reach of the presidency. Often, this took the form of curtailing basic rights long considered the people’s last line of defense against tyranny. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the case of detainees, the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions on the rights of combatants, the illegal wiretapping, all supposedly instituted in response to 9/11, had in fact been discussed long before that attack. Natural disasters were a minor concern. They were thinking mainly about a vehicle for White House command and control in case of enemy attack, without the constitutional restraints that they considered outmoded and counterproductive.
When the planes hit on 9/11, FEMA was nominally in charge. But off the national radar, that event also represented the first- ever implementation of a concept known as “continuity of government,” or COG. According to a Washington Post report, President Bush “dispatched a shadow government of about one hundred senior civilian managers to live and work outside Washington, activating for the first time long- standing plans to ensure survival of federal rule after catastrophic attack.”53 The Post story, which expanded on material published in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer months earlier, asserted that the plan was “deployed ‘on the fly’ in the first hours of turmoil on Sept. 11.”54
Actually, the plan went back to Executive Order 12656, issued by President Reagan in 1988, which stipulated that the Constitution could be suspended for any emergency “that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States.”55 In his book Rumsfeld, journalist Andrew Cockburn quotes a former Pentagon official who claims that during the 1990s, Cheney and Rumsfeld formed “a secret government-in-waiting.”56
Most important for the Bush administration, the Cheney- Rumsfeld group had worked for three decades on preparations to control the American population in the event of a disaster. These included the de facto suspension of the Constitution through a number of steps that became more hotly debated as the Bush administration entered its final months. The administration’s response to terror went far beyond the legal boundaries and reflected a sense that whatever the president wanted to do, he could do. Cheney backed what author Ron Suskind dubbed the “one percent doctrine,” in which if there is even a 1 percent chance of something coming true, it is important to treat it as a certainty.57
A key part of continuity of government was control of segments of the population during periods of unrest. In a 1984 “readiness exercise” implemented by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the National Security Council staffer who also coordinated the secret and illegal contra supply effort, FEMA simulated rounding up four hundred thousand “refugees” for detainment. This was cast as preparation for a possible “uncontrolled population movement” from Mexico to the United States. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $385 million contract to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root for building “temporary immigration detention centers.”58
The implications are obvious. Yet they penetrated only to the furthest edges of popular culture, where paranoia becomes entertainment. In The X-Files movie of 1998, Agent Fox Mulder is warned of FEMA’s ability to “suspend constitutional government upon declaration of a national emergency.” According to a Washington Post article written just after the movie’s release, officials at FEMA were not amused by what they claimed was an inaccurate portrayal of their mandate. “The history of this thing is serious,” said FEMA spokesman Morrie Goodman. “We’ve tightened security at all our facilities because of this.”59
It is necessary, of course, for the government to have a contingency plan for worst-case scenarios. But in focusing on an all- out response to a hypothetical aggressor, the “Cheney doctrine” paid little mind to the kinds of emergencies that, based on prior experience and study, were certain to come—such as major hurricanes—and to affect the largest numbers of people.
Preparing the Turkey Shoot
Whatever leading role Joe Allbaugh might have anticipated in this kind of “national security” activity vanished after 9/11, when Congress mandated that FEMA be absorbed into a new Department of Homeland Security. FEMA insiders say that the merger was a principal factor in Allbaugh’s decision to leave—and to turn the agency over to Michael Brown.
Allbaugh had initially hired Brown, an old friend from Oklahoma, as FEMA general counsel, presiding over a legal staff of thirty. Allbaugh included him in all key deliberations, and even named him chief operating officer. Brown’s influence was apparent to all. Within six months of his arrival, Allbaugh was ready to promote him. First, though, he had to oust his current acting deputy director, John Magaw—a former director of the U.S. Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whom Clinton had placed in charge of coordinating domestic- terrorism efforts for FEMA.
“One day, Mr. Allbaugh came in and said, ‘I know you’ve got these other things to do. I’m going to ask Mr. Brown to be deputy,’ ” recalled Magaw, who promptly returned to the subordinate position assigned him by Clinton.60 The timing was remarkable. Just a week before September 11, 2001, Allbaugh replaced a key anti-terrorism official with a crony who had close to zero relevant experience.
Before Brown could take over permanently as deputy director, he had to face the Senate. In June 2002, he presented a résumé that was full of exaggerations about his experience and serious omissions about his financial and legal problems. Nevertheless, as with most presidential nominees, Brown was confirmed without ado.
Later, after the Katrina disaster, Michael Brown’s incompetence, and Bush’s pronouncement that “Brownie” was doing “a heckuva job,” would turn him into a laugh line. By and large, the media treated him that way. We learned of his prior job with the International Arabian Horse Association and that his prime qualification was that he had been Joe Allbaugh’s college roommate. CNN even handed him its “Political Turkey of the Year” award.61 Yet as it turned on the hapless Brown, the media got its facts wrong. Brown and Allbaugh were not in fact college roommates, and did not even attend the same university. Instead, Michael Brown’s rise to prominence—and therefore the bumbling of the Katrina disaster—tracked back to the Poppy Bush organization.
The Right Stable
Before he joined FEMA, the pinnacle of Brown’s professional experience was as an inspector of Arabian-horse judges. His highest governmental executive position had been as an assistant to a city manager in Edmond, Oklahoma, decades before. (Brown had told the Senate that he was an “assistant city manager,” responsible for police, fire, and emergency services. In truth, he had been “more like an intern,” the town’s PR liaison told Time.)62
After passing the Oklahoma bar in 1982, Brown moved to the oil boomtown of Enid, where he was hired by the law firm of Stephen Jones, the flamboyant, nationally known defense attorney. When the firm broke up, thirty- four staffers found immediate work. Brown was one of two not offered employment by the successor firms. “When I saw Brown up there at FEMA, I had a premonition of bad things to come,” Jones recalled when I visited him at his Enid office.63
Like Allbaugh, Brown appeared to have well-connected angels looking after him. His bumpy career was punctuated by timely assists from his self-described “longtime friend and family attorney,” Andrew Lester. An Andover prep-school mate of George W.’s brother Marvin, and onetime employee in the Washington office of the Bush-family-connected Dresser Industries, Lester pops up at crucial points in Brown’s life. When Brown lost his job with the Jones law firm, Lester brought him in for a brief stint as his law partner. When horse- association problems engulfed Brown, Lester rushed to his defense. And on September 27, 2005, at a House Select Committee hearing investigating the Katrina blunders, there was the pin-striped Lester conspicuously whispering legal advice in Brown’s ear.
Lester, a regional director for the Federalist Society, an association of rightward lawyers, represented the Oklahoma Republican Party in a 2002 reapportionment battle. He was also short-listed for a federal judgeship under George W. Bush. Over lunch at an Oklahoma City steak house, Lester told me that his support for Brown arises merely from their friendship. He continued to maintain, even in the wake of the Katrina debacle, that Brown was eminently qualified for FEMA.66
After 9/11, with pressure building for coordinated antiterror responses, it was evident that FEMA could not remain independent. Bush initially opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but eventually he caved to congressional demands, and Joe Allbaugh began to look for an exit strategy. The moment Homeland Security swallowed FEMA, Allbaugh departed for the private sector, leaving Brown in charge.
Initially, Brown seemed to be a better FEMA director than Allbaugh. This was because Brown realized that he didn’t know much about the job and was smart enough to turn to whatever experts remained on staff. He also was a welcome relief to staffers after the fearsome Allbaugh. “I was pretty impressed with him,” said Trey Reid. “He was articulate, bright, a quick study. I didn’t have to spend much time going over things with him.” In terms of disaster management, there were two possibilities FEMA lifers always worried about: a really big California earthquake and levee breaks in New Orleans. But worrying and fixing were two different things. Brown, on the advice of aides, asked for more money for levee improvements and catastrophic planning, but neither the Republican-controlled Congress nor the White House would agree.
If Allbaugh had been disinclined to press Bush for strong remedial action, the inconsequential Brown lacked even that option. He didn’t really have a relationship with the president, his diminutive nickname notwithstanding, and the Department of Homeland Security was focused almost exclusively on terrorism. “I don’t think any of the bud get requests we submitted went through,” said Reid. “Everything went for terrorism.”
With the defections of several senior managers and the firing of others, compounded by the denial or reduction of bud get requests, FEMA’s staff was left paper thin. “At this point, there’s only one person in the building who knows how to do certain things,” Reid told me in our 2005 interview. “If that person gets sick or dies, you’re shit out of luck.”
Despite the cuts, however, there was always money for political purposes. Ever mindful of avoiding his father’s mistakes—among them the disastrous handling of Hurricane Andrew in 1992—Bush was not about to lose to John Kerry over disaster relief. Under Brown, the response to a series of hurricanes that battered Florida during the 2004 presidential campaign was as choreographed as Bush’s landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln the previous year. Agency staffers were everywhere, in FEMA T-shirts, and Brown was especially visible. An investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel later found that FEMA had handed out tens of millions of dollars following Hurricane Frances to residents and businesses in the Miami- Dade County area, where no deaths and only mild damage had occurred. There was much less assistance to areas that were harder hit but less politically crucial.67
Like most federal agencies under George W., FEMA received little attention until disaster struck, and the attention vanished soon thereafter. But there were warning signs at the agency well before the hurricane. One such example was FEMA’s abrupt decision in 2003, not long after Brown had taken over, to award an exclusive contract for emergency water supplies.
Over the years, FEMA had entered into water contracts with a variety of companies. One, not surprisingly, was Nestlé Waters North America, easily the continent’s biggest producer. Then, after W.’s inauguration, without explanation, FEMA went sole-source, and picked a little-known, family-run firm called Lipsey Mountain Spring Water. The company, based in Norcross, Georgia, had just fifteen full- time employees, no production capacity, and no distribution network.
Lipsey Mountain Spring Water may have been new to the world of federal water contracts, but its principals were not new to politics. The Lipseys are part of a politically connected family that gives regularly to both political parties and owns one of the country’s largest gun wholesalers. The gun lobby is among the nation’s most powerful, and a group whose events both Cheney and Allbaugh attended with regularity.
The Pentagon later confirmed that its inspector general was investigating Lipsey in response to complaints from truck drivers, trucking brokers, and ice producers, who did much of the actual work under Lipsey’s FEMA contract. These said Lipsey had not paid its bills or even answered its phone calls. (In 2005, following my request for an interview, company president Joe Lipsey III asked to see a list of questions, then never responded.) In 2007, Department of Defense auditors determined that the company owed the government $881,000 in overpayments in cases where the company erroneously received multiple duplicate fees.69
By August 2005, Brown was already rumored to be preparing his own exit into the private sector. And just as Allbaugh had a reliable understudy in Brown, Brown was readying his own—Patrick Rhode, his chief of staff, whom he elevated to deputy director. Rhode was a former Bush campaign advance man; and while he too lacked experience in emergency management, his PR and media skills had been sharpened as a former television news anchor and reporter. Perhaps they’d been sharpened a bit too much: it was Rhode who, several days into the Katrina disaster, would call FEMA’s performance “one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country’s history.”
[For the entire book, click here.]