Just Who Was At That Fake FEMA Briefing?

A photo obtained by CBS News of the fake FEMA news conference about the California wildfires on Oct. 23, 2007. CBS

CBS News has obtained this photo of the now infamous fake FEMA press conference held during the California wildfires. The photo, taken by a FEMA employee, is one of the only known photos of the press gallery of that event.

The gallery is not filled with members of the press but with high-level agency employees.

At the podium on the left is Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson, the second in command at FEMA.

The former director of public affairs at the agency, John "Pat" Philbin told CBS News last week, "I am not aware that he knew what was happening and all of sudden staff were asking questions."

Identified in the photo are staff members that Johnson works closely with on a daily basis.

From left to right: Nathaniel Fogg, Counselor to the Director and Deputy Director; John "Pat" Philbin, former Director of External Affairs; Michael Widomski, Public Affairs Specialist; Eric Heighberger, Special Assistant, Office of the Administrator; Cindy Taylor (in tan suit), Communications Deputy Director; Dan Shulman (red tie), Director of Legislative Affairs; Debbie Wing (curly blond hair), Media Response Liaison; Aaron Walker (back to camera), National Spokesman.

(CBS)


Primary Source Blog: Heads Roll At FEMA | "I Should Have Cancelled"



It was announced Thursday that an internal investigation had found that FEMA's press secretary encouraged, and in some cases instructed, employees to pose as reporters and ask questions at the fake news conference.

At the same time, the investigation, which was conducted by Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke, concluded that officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, did not set out to deceive the public. Knocke blamed bad decision-making and a rush to get out information about wildfires that were raging in southern California.

"Much like in an airline crash or automobile accident that was reconstructed, there were several different points leading up to the press conference where, had a single decision been made differently, the event itself could have been averted," Knocke said Thursday.

Aaron Walker, the FEMA press secretary, has since accepted a job with a public relations firm in Utah. He said Thursday that FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison did not ask him to leave as a result of the incident or the investigation's findings.

On Oct. 23, reporters were given 15 minutes' notice for what turned into a staged question-and-answer briefing with FEMA's deputy administrator about the California fires. No genuine journalists attended, although they were given a conference call number they could use to listen in but not ask questions. A half-dozen questions were asked at the event by FEMA staff members posing as reporters.

Since the briefing Philbin - who, at the time of the news conference, already had accepted a job at the office of the director of national intelligence - lost his new post before he even started because of the incident.

The incident has been condemned by the White House and by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Paulison called it "an egregious decision."

A FEMA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the investigation found that during the news conference Walker advised the staff that the briefing continued to be televised and that they should continue to ask questions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about personnel matters.

Walker, in an interview Thursday, said he had asked his boss to push back the time of the news conference, which had been hastily set for 1 p.m. Walker said he sent a 12:17 p.m. e-mail to Philbin and Homeland Security's assistant secretary for public affairs, Ed Fox, and asked for more time, but the e-mail went unanswered.

The agency's deputy administrator, Harvey Johnson, called on FEMA employees by name during the news conference and knew they weren't reporters.

The Homeland Security Department, of which FEMA is a part, directed FEMA officials to hold a news conference that day before Chertoff and Paulison landed in California, but did not designate a specific time, the FEMA official said.

Since the incident, the department suffered another public relations embarrassment when it was discovered that the assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement judged a Halloween costume contest and awarded "most original" to an employee dressed in dreadlocks, dark makeup and prison stripes. That employee has been placed on leave.

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