I found this guest editorial in the Boston Globe by Juliette Kayyem to be quite remarkable. She was an assistant secretary of DHS during the Gulf Spill and since she no longer is, she speaks with surprising candor about what was going on behind the scenes with the political interference in the spill.
Here are some insights worthy of highlighting:
The disconnect between operations and politics:
In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally.
Why the administration interfered:
Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.
On the interference by the governors:
Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.
On the “boom wars:”
But boom was a quantifiable thing, and no governor could be seen as having less than the guy next door.
Just to summarize this a bit for the purpose of looking ahead. The ground rules she talks about, the use of the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center established for oil spill response in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 were essentially tossed out by the administration. The reasons she provides–public expectations (I should add, driven by media intent on assigning blame) and political pressure by local and state officials resulted in overriding decisions by Incident Commanders to respond to political pressure (eg., boom wars). More than that, it meant throwing out all the rules for collaborative communication responsive to Incident Command with direct White House control on all response information. As the Coast Guard ISPR pointed out, this effectively shut down the communication operation, much to the harm of public trust.
I’ve asked myself this question many times since then–was this the best strategy for the Obama administration? He largely succeeded in avoiding the blame and the “Obama’s Katrina” label which was a serious risk. So, it looks like it was successful. But there were many others who paid the price for this, unfairly and unjustly in my mind. What if the administration had played by the rules? What if they had allowed the response to patiently explain to the reporters that if they wanted to understand how the response was being run they should do a little more investigation than looking at the latest tweets and understand why OPA 90 was set up the way it was. What if they were to explain that BP’s role was necessary, that the response was a collaborative effort under the supervision of the federal government, that the National Contingency Plan and the Area Contingency Plans worked out well in advance were being implemented and they were based on best science? What if they were to explain that boom is being placed where it will do the most good, rather than where Jindal, Nungesser and Tafaro were screaming for it, or where it would serve as a nice background for the president’s press conferences?
Regardless of how history ultimately treats the administration’s interference and throwing out the rules, as Kayyem accurately portrays, one thing is clear. Throwing out the rules has left the oil industry and the emergency management community in great confusion. What will happen next time when the federal government gets involved? Will we use the processes that the government has established, namely NIMS. Or will they once again, say that staying within NIMS is not in the administration’s best interest and just wing it? And what does winging it mean for those trying to respond on the local and regional level? What does it mean for oil spill response? What rules will be used and what does that mean for how they will communicate and try to build public trust?