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Brown says he's been made Katrina scapegoat

Ex-FEMA chief blames Homeland Security for slow response

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown testifies Friday before a Senate panel.


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The embattled former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency portrayed himself during testimony Friday as a scapegoat who had fought for emergency aid to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

"I was as frustrated as everyone" at "the slowness of the response. I was screaming and cussing," Michael Brown told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is probing the government's sluggish response to the disaster.

Before Katrina's landfall, he said he had pushed the appropriate officials "to cut every piece of red tape ... to do everything they humanly could to respond to this."

Brown said the government's response would have been different if terrorism had been the cause of the levee failures in New Orleans.

"But because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

Homeland Security officials have told the committee they did not know the extent of the disaster until a day after Brown did. But the former FEMA director called those assertions "disingenuous" and "baloney."

Brown said he views himself as a scapegoat "abandoned" by the Bush administration.

Brown's testimony coincides with fresh questions about how much the administration knew about the disaster on the day Katrina hit -- Monday, August 29.

Democrats have released a new batch of FEMA e-mails, some of which indicated that government officials were notified that day that there were dangerous breaks in New Orleans' flood protection system. (Full story)

Brown received much of the blame in the days immediately after the storm. He also came under intense criticism over his qualifications to lead FEMA. He resigned September 12.

Tough questions on leadership

Some lawmakers Friday accused him of refusing to take responsibility for his failures.

"You're not prepared to, kind of, put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies and say, 'You know something? I made some big mistakes. I wasn't focused. I didn't get things done,' " said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota.

Coleman said Brown "didn't provide the leadership," adding that "I'm not sure you got it." (Watch Brown in a testy exchange with Coleman -- 3:26)

"Even with structural infirmities, strong leadership can overcome that. And clearly that wasn't the case here," Coleman said.

Brown responded, "I absolutely resent you sitting here saying that I lacked the leadership to do that, because I was down there pushing everything that I could. I've admitted to those mistakes. And if you want something else from me, put it on the table, and you tell me what you want me to admit to."

In three hours of testimony, Brown argued he faced structural problems stemming from FEMA being made a part of the Department of Homeland Security, which President Bush created after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Brown contended the reorganization created a bureaucratic nightmare that left a chain of responsibility unclear and set up roadblocks preventing quick action.

"There was a cultural clash which didn't recognize the absolute inherent science of preparing for disaster, responding to it, mitigating against future disasters and recovering from disaster," he said.

"And any time you break that cycle of preparing, responding, recovering and mitigating you are doomed to failure. And the policies and decisions that were implemented by DHS put FEMA on a path to failure."

Months before Katrina, Brown said he had requested, and received, recommendations from senior FEMA operational professionals about how the agency could better prepare for and respond to disasters.

"We were never given the money, we were never given the resources, we were never given the opportunity to implement any of those recommendations," he said.

The former FEMA chief said he had conversations on the issue with White House officials, including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolton; Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin; White House Chief of Staff Andy Card; Gen. John Gordon, former assistant to the president for Homeland Security; and White House adviser Fran Townsend.

Executive privilege not asserted

Brown said that he and his attorney had asked the White House for guidance on whether to invoke executive privilege, which would have prevented him from revealing private communications with administration officials.

Sen. Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Senate committee, said she also spoke with White House counsel Harriet Miers on Thursday night and made it clear what was necessary to invoke executive privilege.

By not doing so, the White House is effectively allowing Brown to share internal communications, Collins said.

The Maine Republican asked Brown about testimony from Homeland Security officials who "tell us that they did not know of the severity of the situation in New Orleans until Tuesday morning. That's almost 24 hours after you received the information that I referred to about the severe flooding in New Orleans."

Brown testified that "I find it a little disingenuous that DHS would claim that they were not getting that information," citing FEMA video conferences held at least once a day.

"The record indicates that on numerous occasions" a senior Homeland Security official was "in on those conversations," he said.

"So for them to now claim that we didn't have awareness of it, I think is just baloney. They should have had awareness of it because they were receiving the same information that we were."

But later, Brown said he regularly circumvented Homeland Security officials in disasters and briefed the White House directly to save time.

"DHS was an additional bureaucracy that was going to slow me down even more," he said. "And the way I got around that was dealing directly with the White House."

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, asked whether speaking directly with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would have produced worthwhile results.

"No, it would have wasted my time," Brown said. "And I say that not because of any disparagement of Secretary Chertoff, but because if I needed the Army to do something, rather than waste the time to call Secretary Chertoff and then have him call somebody else ... I'd rather just call Andy Card and or Joe Hagin and say, 'This is what I need,'and it gets done. That's exactly what we did in Florida" in previous hurricanes.

Collins said the committee will have further questions for Brown on the record.

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