“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

When the Captain in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” said that, he was talking about Paul Newman’s character, but he could have been describing our system of government in times of crisis. The mob storming the U.S. Capitol is only the latest in a depressingly long line of examples.

I speak from experience, as one of the founders of the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Both of those federal agencies were authorized after the 9/11 attacks, tasked with improving coordination of the nation’s response to terrorist attacks and catastrophic disasters.

That mission ran headlong into a hodgepodge of local, county, state, tribal and federal agencies. Each level of government has its own firefighters, emergency medical technicians, state and municipal police, county sheriffs, SWAT teams, investigators and highway patrol personnel. In a disaster, add the federal elements: FBI, TSA, Border Patrol, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Marshals, Immigration and Customs Enforcement … you get the idea. (Amtrak has its own police force.) We discovered that many of those agencies couldn’t – or wouldn’t – talk on the same radio channel.

Capitol Hill is a microcosm of that situation. The Capitol Police have their own organizational chart with their own chief. At the bottom of Capitol Hill, the Washington, D.C., cops assume jurisdiction. Well, except where federal facilities – national parks, museums, agency offices – are protected by a variety of individual police forces and security guards. Plus the Secret Service protecting the White House and dozens of foreign embassies – most of downtown, actually.

So, who’s in charge of all these resources when they need to be coordinated? Too often, nobody. The Capitol mob attack illustrated once again what happens when everyone insists on retaining their traditional operational sovereignty. When everybody’s in charge, nobody’s in charge.

Things have improved somewhat nationwide as governors appointed homeland security advisers in each state. There is an active Maine Emergency Management Agency that promotes training, operational coordination and incident command protocols across disciplines. Our first responders have coordinated pretty well for years, partly as good policy, partly because many of them are chronically understaffed.

But the Capitol attack again demonstrates that the various federal agencies have mostly retained their traditional turf-conscious posture. We’ve seen this movie before.

We saw it in the aftermath of 9/11. We saw it in the response to Hurricane Katrina. We’re still seeing it in the on-again, off-again reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions about who’s in charge, a lack of situational awareness as the event unfolds, a mismatch between training and mission goals. We are already seeing the establishment of the inevitable circular firing squad where everybody involved blames somebody else.

Nonetheless, it will be difficult for Congress to resist forming yet another special commission to come up with yet another after-action report. That’s what they do.

Some predictable bullet points from that future report:

• Vague chains of command produce vague responses. A single entity must be empowered to make things happen across turf lines.

• Time, thought and money need to be invested in regular, realistic training of everyone from the top of each agency to the front-line responders so they understand each other’s roles.

• Tabletop exercises (simulated, moderator-led, scripted scenarios) need to be held regularly, with members of Congress, governors and mayors participating fully.

• A culture elevating the importance of the common good versus protecting your personal turf, power and prestige must be embraced and nurtured.

• Political leaders need to spend more time on muscular oversight of the key agencies.

Some defiant bureaucratic heads will need to be cracked together, and some of these folks will need to find a different career path. We need to get back to the basics, re-think and re-energize our whole national emergency response structure, the way we did after 9/11.

And we desperately need strong, knowledgable, operationally savvy professionals who recognize that the common good is more important than their agency’s turf or their personal prestige.

Or, to put it another way: What we’ve got here is a failure of leadership.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.