FEMA Apologizes After Sham News Conference

FEMA has apologized for holding sham news conference on fire response.

February 12, 2009, 10:06 AM

Oct. 26, 2007 — -- It looked like any other Washington press briefing, with a public affairs official walking up to a podium, introducing a government official and kicking off a press conference.

But what happened next raised the ire of the news media and ticked off Bush administration officials.

Tuesday the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was holding a news conference to answer reporters' questions about the federal agency's emergency response to the Southern California wildfires.

The agency gave reporters just 15 minutes notice to attend, and those members of the media who called in via phone lines could listen to the event but were not able to ask questions.

FEMA's Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson conducted the event like a regular press briefing, assuring those in attendance that FEMA -- the agency that performed so poorly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- was responding well to the disaster in Southern California.

"The report basically is that were doing a fine, doing a pretty good job," Johnson told the audience.

The event went smoothly. That is, until the news media discovered that the press conference wasn't exactly a press conference at all.

Unlike most press briefings, this one was missing a key component: members of the press.

No reporters? No problem for FEMA. The agency filled the press room with its own public affairs personnel who asked questions.

It looked real enough for cable networks to briefly air the live event.

"I'll be glad to take some of your questions," Johnson said.

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" one staffer asked.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far," Johnson replied.

And so it went for more than 10 minutes, without any journalists.

The inevitable comparisons to Katrina came up during the questioning, giving Johnson an opportunity to tout the agency's improved disaster response.

He said, "In lessons learned from Katrina, it's like, is there day and is there night?"

"But what you're seeing now is a very smoothly, very efficiently performing team," he said.

After the event was over, FEMA staff members went back to their day jobs, perhaps unaware of the fallout to come.

Over the next few days, the incident became fodder for news blogs.

Friday a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said Secretary Michael Chertoff was not pleased with the decisions made by agency staff.

"This is simply inexcusable and offensive to the Secretary [Chertoff] that such a mistake could have been made," Laura Keehner said Friday on a conference call with the media.

"We have made it clear stunts such as this will not be tolerated or repeated."

Keehner noted that the department is looking into the possibility of reprimanding FEMA staff.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters Friday that the White House did not know about FEMA's plan beforehand, and said, "It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."

"It's not something I would have condoned. And they, I'm sure, will not do it again."

FEMA released a statement of apology Friday afternoon.

In the statement, Johnson said FEMA is reviewing its procedures to ensure that future communications with the press are "straightforward and transparent."

"We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment," Johnson said.

But he asked the media not to focus on that misjudgment, and instead concentrate on the "real story" of the successes of the efforts in California.

Turns out the U.S. government still believes the news media is needed -- at least at press conferences.

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