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FEMA Official Regrets Phony Press Briefing

Pat Philbin, the now former director of external affairs for FEMA, told CBS News that he should have stopped the press conference on the California wildfires that the agency held last week without any media present.

"I should have cancelled it quickly. I did not have good situational awareness of what was happening," he told CBS News in a telephone interview.

The press conference was announced on short notice and featured questions for FEMA's deputy administrator, Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson.

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.

Philbin himself was heard off-camera asking Adm. Johnson, his boss, a question. He now says he feels terrible about what happened, adding that the FEMA press office was under considerable pressure to get information on the California fires out to the press and was working on little sleep.

"I can definitively tell you that there were no discussions or conversations about setting up a fake news conference," said Philbin.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has called for disciplinary action for the fake news event, but Philbin's departure from FEMA is not related to any disciplinary action within DHS.

Philbin lost the chance to be National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell's top public information officer.

Philbin had been scheduled to move into the new job at the director of national intelligence office on Monday. The staged question-and-answer session was harshly criticized by both the White House and Chertoff, whose department oversees FEMA.

"We do not normally comment on personnel matters," DNI spokesman Ross Feinstein said Monday. "However, we can confirm that Mr. Philbin is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the director of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence."

Philbin was among the six questioners, according to The Washington Post. The questions included: "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?"

"I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government," Chertoff said later.

FEMA later apologized for the phony news briefing and said it was reviewing its procedures for dealing with news organizations.

"This incident is most regrettable and was entirely unavoidable," FEMA administrator R. David Paulison wrote in an Oct. 26 memo to all FEMA public affairs employees. "I am very disappointed in some of our public affairs staff for not realizing the impact of this decision."

McConnell had offered Philbin the director of communications at the intelligence office prior to the FEMA event, according to Feinstein.

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