Thursday, 19 January 2017

Cronies at the Helm

It took the mighty blows of Hurricane Katrina to expose the failure of the United States government in protecting and saving its citizens from a natural disaster. As horrific as a terrorist attack, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 'shocked and awed' the world for days, depicting the misery and desperation of thousands of stranded victims on rooftops crying for help, the dead floating in the fetid floodwaters, and two hundred thousands more trapped in the Superdome in sunken New Orleans. Shamefully, the poor, sick and elderly were the ones abandoned, ignored, and sacrificed to a natural catastrophe caused by the negligent, irresponsible and inept government in handling a national crisis. Even before Hurricane Rita hit land, the mass exodus of residents created a traffic snarl that left hundreds of abandoned cars without gas and killed 24 persons in a bus explosion on the highway out of Houston. More deaths were reported not from the powerful destruction of both hurricanes but from the gross mismanagement of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under Bush's watch. One obvious conclusion could be drawn -- with Bush's cronies placed at the helm in government departments and agencies, America is falling apart at its seams.

Since George W. Bush took over the presidency in 2000, he has placed friends and politicians in key government positions with only one qualification -- being loyal Republicans. Most of Bush’s cronies have been considered as unqualified -- lacking the expertise, experience or knowledge pertinent to the departments or agencies to which they were designated to command. Evidently, these men and women have toed the Bush's political agenda -- favoring industry exploitation, ignoring sound advice and recommendations, and worse still, unwilling to enforce existing laws. It’s not surprising that the government is hollowing out of experienced officials -- an ongoing exodus of experts, and along with them, their expertise.

In the last four and half years, the major departments and agencies that have direct consequential effects on Americans' lives have deteriorated to the point of being dysfunctional or have become loopholes for corporate control over the government. Looking at the four main departments that supposed to protect the well-being of Americans and the nation -- FEMA, Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- one could see similarities: cronies at the helm; departures of competent professionals; high turnover rates; and government functions crippled by Bush’s policies.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Bush selected Michael Brown to assume the top post of FEMA when Joe Allbaugh left in 2003. As an undersecretary, Michael Brown reports directly to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Brown had worked as the stewards and judges commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. According to the Washington Post, the top three FEMA officials had connections to Bush's 2000 presidential election campaign.

FEMA, formerly praised as an independent agency led by a Cabinet-level official during the Clinton years, was folded into the Department of Homeland Security in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Under Brown's leadership, FEMA had been fraught with controversies and criticisms for responding to natural disasters. Blaming it on a computer error, Brown doled out $12 million to Miami residents not affected by Hurricane Frances. Reports on FEMA revealed that it sent inspectors with criminal records of robbery and embezzlement to do damage assessments, ending up with numerous cases of fraud and waste. The disastrous relief efforts of Hurricane Katrina nailed the coffin for Brown's career as the head of FEMA on September 12, 2005. To deflect scathing criticisms from Congress and the media, Bush named David Paulison (Democrat), who has emergency management experience as the Director of the Preparedness Division of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate/FEMA, to step in as the acting director of FEMA.

Department of Homeland Security

The former and the first Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, who is a close friend of Bush, was the architect of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. He downgraded FEMA to be included in the consolidation of twenty-two federal agencies to protect America from terrorism. The former Pennsylvania governor acknowledged that he could not prove how effective the expensive and complex security measures would be against terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Ridge was suspected of raising politically-timed terror alerts to the color "orange" to heighten fear and boost support for Bush.

Michael Chertoff, without emergency management credentials, was confirmed on February 15, 2005 to succeed Tom Ridge as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He is a former federal prosecutor and appellate court judge. Chertoff also penned the USA Patriot Act and had advised CIA about the legality of torture when he served as the head of the criminal division of Justice Department from 2001 to 2003. As the director of Homeland Security, Chertoff shirked his responsibility by writing a memo, delegating authority to Brown and deferring to the president, the day after Hurricane Katrina struck. Both Chertoff and Brown have been criticized for ignoring warnings of Katrina and bungling the relief efforts.

The ultimate blame for Hurricane Katrina catastrophe goes to the president who placed unqualified individuals without emergency management skills in positions that risk American lives, who allowed the White House to cut the budget for necessary repairs on New Orleans levees, so the money could be used for his Iraq war, who ignored repeated warnings from scientists and local officials of an impending natural disaster in the New Orleans area, and who seemed to be out of touch in his callous and sluggish response to a national crisis.

Environmental Protection Agency

Bush tapped a politician, Christie Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, to be the administrator of EPA. She played a key role in rolling back environmental protections for air, water and land, set by previous administrations. Whitman made headlines when she cooperated with the White House to rewrite a government-commissioned report on global warming -- questioning the very existence of global warming. She was also accused of playing a role in the alleged cover-up of the toxic chemicals in the air around Ground Zero in New York City.

After Whitman resigned in 2003, Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah with a notorious record of failing to enforce the laws that protect public health and natural resources in his own state, became the new administrator of EPA.

Under the Bush administration, the EPA has been accused of being involved in corrupt practices, providing reports that have allegedly been modified, distorted or politically influenced by the White House. This agency has suffered a major loss of experienced workers over the past few years. In March 2005, nine states sued the EPA for not following the Clean Air Act on mercury emissions.

In the same month, Bush nominated a career scientist, Stephen L. Johnson, to do damage control for the flagging EPA. Johnson is the first professional scientist to head an agency that has been beset by controversies over global warming, pesticide safety and drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge.

Food and Drug Administration

The FDA, a federal agency vital to the welfare of the people, has been leaderless for the most part of Bush's years.

Mark B. McClellan, whose brother is Scott McClellan (White House Press Secretary), became the commissioner of FDA in November 2002. As one of the few qualified persons picked by Bush, McClellan previously worked as a physician and economist. Then, he was moved to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) after serving the FDA for only sixteen months. Favoring biotechnology and drug industries, McClellan advocated policies to speed up the process of making drugs available for consumers, modernize good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and block drug importing and illegal Internet sales. Critics said he was market-driven and pro-privatization, running healthcare as a business instead of a service.

Lester M. Crawford,who had been serving as the FDA's acting commissioner before and after McClellan, became permanent commissioner on July 18, 2005. He was a former veterinarian and experienced Washington bureaucrat. Then, the embattled Crawford, accused of being lax in overseeing the FDA, abruptly resigned on September 23, 2005, just two months after his confirmation by the US Senate. Andrew von Eschenbach, a urologist, is now the temporary acting commissioner of FDA.

Floundering without a permanent leader, the FDA has been ridden with internal rift, controversies and scandals. The FDA has been criticized for approving dangerous prescription drugs for the consumer market. Serious questions have been raised about the FDA's coziness with drug companies when several agency scientists blew the whistle on superiors for silencing their warnings about potentially unsafe drugs. The agency was forced to recall some popular drugs that had been on the U.S. market for years. Now, the agency is under public scrutiny and several ongoing investigations on how it handles approvals and safety monitoring for drugs and other medical products.


Such incompetent and unqualified leaders at the helm and in mid-level positions throughout the U.S. government have hastened the collapse of a fortified system that is already burdened with a fiscal crisis, political corruption in the ranks and an unfavorable costly war. One thing history tells us -- even the best and the strongest built structure could sink, like the Titanic.

(First published on, October 1, 2005)