By Devlin Barrett
WASHINGTON (Oct. 27) - The homeland security chief on Saturday lashed into his own employees for staging a phony news conference at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government," Michael Chertoff said.
"I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment," he added.
Asked specifically if he planned to fire anyone at FEMA, which is part of his department, Chertoff declined to say, citing personnel rules.
"There will be appropriate discipline," he told reporters at a news conference with New York's governor where they announced an agreement on a driver's license plan.
Chertoff said he knew nothing about the matter until after it happened and that he "can't explain why it happened."
The White House on Friday scolded FEMA for the faux press conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.
The agency - much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago - arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of reporters at the event Tuesday and question Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy director.
The questions were soft and gratuitous.
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.
FEMA gave reporters only 15 minutes notice about Tuesday's news conference. But because of the short notice, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in. Many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.
Johnson said in a statement Friday that FEMA's goal was "to get information out as soon as possible and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment."
"Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received," he said. "We can and must do better."