WASHINGTON – Internal meeting notes released by a union official say Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told employees that many changes planned for federal disaster response were a public relations ploy.
The purported statements were in typed notes issued Tuesday by a union representative for federal emergency workers. A Homeland Security Department spokesman said Chertoff considers the post-Hurricane Katrina changes one of his highest priorities and never would have made such comments.
Under the heading "Retooling/Chertoff's remarks," the typed notes said, "The re-tooling is partially a perception ploy to make outsiders feel like we've actually made changes for the better."
The notes were released by Leo Bosner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents headquarters workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA, once independent, is now part of the massive Homeland Security Department.
Bosner said he obtained the notes from another FEMA official, whom he would not identify.
Russ Knocke, spokesman for Chertoff, said it was "categorically not the case" that Chertoff made those remarks.
Knocke said Chertoff has repeatedly stressed the importance of improving disaster response in testimony before Congress and in public remarks. Knocke said he had not seen the notes, but called them "horribly unfortunate."
Bosner, the union representative, said he was told the remarks were made in the past week. The union official said he understood the notes were not taken at the meeting where Chertoff spoke. Rather, they were taken at a second meeting, in which a FEMA official who heard Chertoff relayed those comments to another FEMA audience.
Other points in the notes:
—Chertoff believes FEMA is not a response agency for disasters. "We essentially should be only doing recovery," the notes said.
—The Homeland Security agency has drafted a proposal to place a senior federal official or Coast Guard admiral in 17 major cities to handle disaster responses. "This position essentially pre-empts our relationship with the states and locals in terms of response and recovery," the notes said.
—"A question came up ... on whether FEMA could take over a state's functions if that state isn't able to provide basic functions like evacuation. The biggest issue that came up apparently was the legality question."
Meanwhile, Chertoff said in a speech Tuesday that the government may have to radically change FEMA.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which battered Gulf Coast states over an eight-week period, stretched the agency "beyond the breaking point," Chertoff said in a public review of his department's 2005 performance.
"We will retool FEMA, maybe even radically, to increase our ability to deal with catastrophic events," he said in a 35-minute speech at George Washington University.
Chertoff offered no specifics for changing FEMA but said its employees must be given authority to cut through bureaucracy to assist disaster victims quickly.
His aides said changes will come early next year.
It was unclear whether any of the changes will require legislative action, or if Chertoff will move before Congress returns to Washington in late January. A special House inquiry of the government's response to Katrina, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is expected to issue its findings by Feb. 15.
Additionally, the White House is completing its own review of federal preparations and response to Katrina, an extraordinarily powerful storm that hit Aug. 29. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "Certainly, some of the recommendations will be related to FEMA."
Homeland Security and FEMA were widely blamed for the government's sluggish response to Katrina, which left some victims without food, water and safe shelter for days. The criticism led to the resignation of FEMA Director Michael Brown, who had limited disaster response experience.