- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

Most people until now perhaps didn’t understand that the only way we can really address a large-scale internal catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina is with our active-duty military. Not state or local authorities, National Guard nor Reserves, but the active-duty military.

However, when active-duty forces are committed to this kind of service — including many other homeland security duties — they can’t perform the service for which we primarily have them: to defeat the most fundamental threats to our national security away from our borders.

This is particularly critical during a war, especially a manpower-intensive conflict such as that in Iraq.

And this is why there is always — regardless of the political party in power or political finger-pointing in Congress — an appreciable lag between onset of a possible domestic need for the active-duty military (hurricane, flood or earthquake) and arrival of those forces on the scene.

During this lag some high-stakes budgetary politics are under way — for example:

• Who pays for use of the active-duty military forces. The law requires reimbursement, and it’s very, very expensive.

• How long will the resources be committed away from their primary mission of national defense?

• Are other possible federal, state and local contributors “tapped out” or are they holding back resources, hoping the military will step in and do it for them. This is a sort of bureaucratic “chicken” game to see how long it takes the president to succumb to public pressure and direct the active-duty military to get in and do the job.

This was happening in Washington in the first few days after Katrina struck. You see, FEMA, the euphemistic “Federal Emergency Management Agency” is, and always has been, a hollow shell. Basically, it’s a group of people sitting in a room writing checks and buying stuff over the phone or on the Internet to be sent to victims of a tragedy or disaster.

With the “usual” disaster, there are enough checks in the FEMA checkbook and money for them to seem to have done something constructive. However, this is unfair criticism of FEMA — they are not chartered to actually do much of anything. Their just pay for the stuff to be bought, supplied, delivered and used by others to deal with the disaster.

Now, from time to time, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, efforts are made to rectify this and create some real capability within FEMA or other agencies within the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

But most of these efforts are simply vehicles for a “pork” project that seldom amounts to anything except diversion of federal funds into a local political district — a close look at the line item spending of DHS will cause even the hardiest Washington lobbyist gag on his free lunch.

If my cynicism is overpowering, it’s intentional: These presumptively “responsible” officials — DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and the FEMA director were peppered with questions they simply could not answer — they hadn’t a clue as to when something would happen or actually be done. The best they could do was to try to avoid saying “I haven’t a clue.”

Now, the defense secretary knew — and still knows — all these things. He has the “stuff,” the people and wherewithal to go and do something somewhere — but he will always defer to those “in charge” of these domestic tragedies, primarily because he doesn’t want a new mission that will detract from his primary one: killing bad guys overseas, where they live, so they can’t come here and kill us where we live.

While there will be jillions of dollars spent on this catastrophe and the investigations and recriminations after, what happened is very simple. And, it’s also the reason:

c It took two or three days to decide the obvious.

• Mr. Chertoff didn’t know anything.

• The FEMA director knew even less.

• Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saved the day and now is everyone’s best buddy, including the president’s.

c The regular Army, Navy. Air Force and Marine Corps (bless them) are now doing what they do the best — getting stuff organized and getting the job done.

And, it will happen again unless and until we address the fundamental assumptions about how we organize and fund our federal, state and local governments. As we learned the hard way this time, the system we created simply doesn’t work for the large, catastrophic disaster.

Hurricane Katrina — as deadly and devastating as it perhaps had to be — may motivate us to think as responsibly about our safety and security at home as we have done to protect our country against the deadly threats from outside our borders.

Daniel J. Gallington is a former deputy assistant defense secretary for territorial security.

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