Brown Out

For those of you waiting on the emergence of Karl Rove’s New Orleans strategy, it already came and went: Blame it on Brownie.

Admittedly, this bit of misdirection doesn’t qualify as vintage Rove. But then Rove, who has been tapped by Bush to head the reconstruction program, may have personal reasons for keeping the deepening New Orleans scandal on the front pages. At least it takes the heat off of his own travails, as Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald prepares to lay out his case before the federal grand jury in Arlington.

So Mike Brown, the fabulously inept director of FEMA, now joins Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke as another flattened piece of Bush administration roadkill.

Of course, Brown is a convenient and deserving patsy.

Prior to joining the Bush team, the high point of Brown’s career had been his tenure as executive director of the International Arabian Horse Association. Like his patron George Bush, Brown proved to be an inept businessman. In a few brief years, Brown had wrecked the once venerable organization, bankrupted its accounts and opened it to flood of lawsuits. One former member of the group called Brown’s management of the organization “an unmitigated, total fucking disaster.”

Brown himself became a target of lawsuits. He passed the hat to collect cash for a legal defense fund to fend off angry litigants. Soon he raised $50,000. Then he was fired. Brown pocketed the money and never looked back.

The International Arabian Horse Association was Mike Brown’s Harken Oil. Although the board canned Brown, it was too late for the horse people. The horse group has never recovered. Indeed, it has dissolved as an organization. But Brown went on greater things, like helping to supervise the drowning of America’s greatest city.

A quick scan of Mike Brown’s resume gives the impression that he was at least marginally qualified for the FEMA position. After all, he claimed to have been the director of emergency management operations for Edmonds, Oklahoma, population 68,000.

But this brawny assignment turns out to have been a feat of resume inflation. According to the former mayor of Edmonds, “Mike was more of an intern. He didn’t have anyone reporting to him.”

Other than that, Brown’s professional career is vaporous. As a lawyer, Brown represented a small oil company, a smaller drilling company and a family-run insurance brokerage. He did a lot of family estate planning and, yes, was once named “political science teacher of the year at Central State College.” Central State, as in the oil patch of Oklahoma. But even this turns out to have been a mirage. Brown never taught anything, let alone political science, at Central State College. He was a student there. But there’s no trace evidence that he won any academic laurels at this Harvard of the Heartland.

Brown got the FEMA post courtesy of his college roommate, Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh is one of Bush’s longtime political wranglers. Among other feats, he helped cover up the document trail detailing Bush’s desertion from the National Guard. In return for these services, Allbaugh was rewarded with the head of FEMA, an agency for which he had descried a profound loathing.

Deploying Gingrichian bombast, Allbaugh denounced FEMA as a “bloated entitlement program.” He quickly set out to dismantle it. The first move, in the wake of 9/11, was to strip FEMA of its cabinet level status and subsume it under the auspices of the terror-obsessed Department of Homeland Security, where the agency was kept on a tight choke-collared leash by Michael Chertoff, perhaps the least empathetic person in the Bush cabinet.

In a few short years, Allbaugh had transformed FEMA from a crisis agency that distributed aid to disaster victims into a corporate welfare service that hands out big government checks to a coterie contractors with political ties to the Bush White House.

When his work was done, Allbaugh tapped his old buddy Mike Brown to supervise the newly dilapidated agency, while he went on to commandeer a few companies that stood at the front of the FEMA welfare line, their hands out for the reception of fat reconstruction checks. Allbaugh allied firms were some of the first to cash in on the corporate looting of New Orleans.

Of course, Joe Allbaugh is hardly alone in this respect. His predecessor, James Lee Witt, who headed FEMA under Clinton and is put forth by Democrats as a model disaster czar, traded in his FEMA credentials for a high-paying gig with the insurance industry, lobbying congress to help companies like All State wiggle out of paying off their claims in the wake of hurricanes and other natural reckonings.

At the urging of the Bush White House, Brown stocked the upper echelons of FEMA with people a lot like himself. FEMA became a kind of patronage holding pen for talentless cronies of the Bush gang, a role the monastery once served for the dimwitted sons of the aristocracy during the Middle Ages. (Now the limited scions of the wealthy land spots as the figureheads of FEMA or the Oval Office.)

Take Brown’s chief of staff, Patrick Rhode. You might think that because Brown had no experience managing a disaster relief agency he might tap the expertise of someone who did. You’d be wrong. A detailed look at Rhode’s resume reveals not the slightest hint of any experience with floodwaters, hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes. His only experience with disasters had been a stint with the Bush 2000 campaign. Rhode parlayed that experience into a plum position as a special assistant to the President and deputy director of National Advance Operations, a position he assumed in January 2001. Brown plucked him from the White House to join FEMA in 2004.

Brown’s number three man was Scott Morris. Before becoming deputy chief of staff at FEMA, Morris worked as a press officer for the 2004 Bush campaign. Prior to that, Morris labored for an Austin, Texas company called Maverick Media, which produced political commercials for the Bush 2000 campaign. Again there’s not even trace evidence that Morris has any experience with natural disasters beyond turning them into photo-ops for Bush and Cheney.

What’s crucial to understand about Bush’s FEMA is that it didn’t fail at its task in New Orleans. Under Bush, FEMA was no longer a disaster relief agency, but a clean up and reconstruction funding agency. With this in mind, it was only natural that Mike Brown waited to act until all the damage had been done. His role wasn’t to throw life-rafts to people drowning in shit-saturated water, but to dole out contracts to favored companies for the rebuilding of the city.

Perhaps Mike Brown’s fatal mistake was that he flinched on camera and dared to show a little sadness and empathy for those who went down in the flood. That humane slip may have signed his bureaucratic death warrant.

George W. Bush is often praised by the press for his loyalty. One wonders why. It’s obvious that the Bush family code goes precisely the other way. Bush demands absolute fealty, while he’s willing to sacrifice almost anyone (except his foul-minded mother) to protect his own ass.

As the rubble and rotting corpses of New Orleans are laid at his feet, the hapless Mike Brown finds himself the latest refugee from the Bush administration to learn this cruel lesson.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Greed in the War on Terror. (Common Courage: 2005)







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Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

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August 17, 2005


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3