Amanda Ripley

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Oh, What’s the Big Deal? It’s Just the No. 1 Terrorism Target in America!

1st Mar 2010 posted in Resilience

So let me first say that I wouldn’t want to be head of homeland security and emergency management for the city of Washington, DC. It’s an incredibly hard job, and not just because it means protecting a city that is a terrorist’s fantasy land. The thing that makes it hardest of all is the fact that it is home to at least two dozen competing law enforcement agencies, many of which don’t really like each other very much.

In any city, getting police and firefighters (or the FBI and the CIA) to get along before, during and after a disaster is like trying to get through a long, hot family vacation without any fights. It’s almost impossible, and in DC, it’s impossible times ten.

In addition to the city police, known as the Metropolitan Police Department, DC is policed by the Secret Service, the Park Police, the Capitol Police, the National Zoo Police...and on and on…all tripping over each other in what is, by any measure, not a very big city. (A while back, when I tried to get a count of the total number of policing outfits in DC for TIME Magazine, neither the Mayor’s office nor the city police department could tell me the exact number. It wasn’t that the information was secret; it was that no one knew.)

So given this jurisdictional cluster, I was distressed to see this in the Washington Post:

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s nominee to lead the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency was unanimously approved Tuesday by a D.C. Council committee, despite her lack of experience in the field. The nomination still has to be approved by the full council.

Millicent D. Williams, who has a degree in business with a concentration in commercial banking, previously worked as president of the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. and executive director of Serve D.C…..Williams also does not hold a security clearance that would allow her to receive information about suspicious activity and attend meetings of a Joint Terrorism Task Force. She testified at her confirmation hearing Friday that she is in the process of obtaining the clearance and is pursuing a master’s degree in homeland defense and security. She said in an e-mail to The Washington Post that she was pleased to have been approved.

Now, Ms. Williams may turn out to be an outstanding homeland security chief. I wholeheartedly hope she succeeds, in no small part because I live here. And her experience coordinating citizen volunteers will help her. But it is strange that Mayor Fenty doesn’t see this as a post where decades of emergency management experience matters. Because I can promise you that the people she needs to manage—and make get along—do think experience matters.

After Hurricane Katrina, Michael Brown was ousted as the head of FEMA, with many critics in Congress and in the Gulf Coast lamenting his lack of relevant experience. In fact, one year later, Congress passed a law requiring the head of FEMA to have experience in emergency management—just as the U.S. solicitor general and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are required to have relevant experience before taking their jobs.

And yet, the same common sense apparently does not apply in the nation’s capital. I was glad to see that the Post called Eric Holdeman to get a response to this situation. Holdeman is one of the people I trust most on disaster management, partly because he is smart and partly because he has…experience:

Eric Holdeman, a consultant on homeland security based in Washington state, said in an interview that Williams’s résumé is sparse for the District, where security issues are amplified by its status as the nation’s capital. “This is the most demanding of positions there is,” he said. “The issue would be: Is she 360 degrees, all-around proven in actual disaster . . . ? No. If I was the mayor of D.C., I’d do a national search.”

Interestingly, after Congress passed that law requiring FEMA directors to have experience, something shocking happened. Bush reserved the right to ignore that requirement (issuing a controversial “signing statement” to that effect.) So I suppose Bush and Fenty have this in common. Luckily, when Obama chose his own head of FEMA, he did not see things the same way.