Ebola Could Become President Obama’s Katrina

Ebola could become President Barack Obama’s hurricane Katrina in terms of the inadequacy of the government’s response. The US government is in reaction mode, seemingly surprised by each new ebola-related event. Downplaying the threat, as Obama did in his Oct. 15 speech on the virus, is dangerous, because each new case undermines the government’s credibility to a greater extent. Providing reassuring updates on the current situation guarantees that Washington will be wrong, when the next case occurs.

If the disease turns into a microbial hurricane that lands on US shores, there’s a good chance Obama’s White House will be as unprepared as the Bush administration was for Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans. Unless the US government starts preparing now for nation-wide outbreaks by the end of the year, things could get ugly.

Many people would say that ebola is not a national security crisis, and that the scale of the problem in the US is small compared to many other causes of death in the country. That may presently be true. But what will happen as three African nations are overwhelmed by the outbreak? How far and how fast will the disease spread? How will widespread fear and lack of confidence in controlling the outbreak contribute to increasing its threat to the US?

To this, I say it never hurts to be over-prepared for a potential crisis of this magnitude, just under-prepared. If worries about a catastrophic domestic outbreak turn out to be too dire, great.

Why is the US government’s response to the ebola threat inadequate? And how can the response be improved?

1. Trust. The American people don’t want “expert” reassurances about the threat of Ebola; they want information. The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) problem is that by not being candid, it is losing credibility with the public. There is a growing sense that the CDC’s public statements are intended to avoid panic rather than keep the public informed. Disclosing facts/truth is the only way to calm nerves. Once people lose confidence in the honesty of their government, panic will ensue. Suspiciously vague reassurances that fail to answer basic questions play into the hands of fear mongers who want to politicize ebola to weaken the administration. One example is the Ashoka Mukpo case. Why has information not been released as to how he was stricken with ebola? This question begets fear monger speculation: ‘if the government won’t tell us, it must be bad; maybe he got it from the door handle of a car.’ On the other hand, advising public of what is known about each case will enhance the population’s intuitive awareness of transmission pathways. Isn’t that what the CDC wants?

2. Bureaucracy. The responsible federal agencies are unprepared for a surprise threat on this scale. They think about it. They practice for it. But the public perception is that they have no feel, no instinct for how to handle it. Each manifestation of the unfolding disaster seems to surprise them, because they don’t see the step-by-step manifestation of an unprecedented event.

3. Culture. Non-national security agencies lack a sense of urgency in their day-to-day business, and the manner in which domestic agencies operate on a daily basis is how they will operate in a crisis. In this context, federal agencies are too bureaucratic, insufficiently agile, tied up in rules and procedures, to do whatever is necessary in a crisis. The culture fails the crisis.

4. Leadership. In judging its actions thus far, the CDC does not appear to be qualified to manage the national security threat dimension of the ebola problem. The CDC excels at providing medically sound advice and recommendations. But the White House needs a public face with the trust and attention of the American people; a leader with a grasp of the entire national security picture is important substantively, as well. The CDC’s thought process appears to rely on a deep knowledge of medical establishment, procedure, and ethics. These attributes are advantageous in responding to normal situations, but they also create a decision bias in favor of the medical system the CDC believes in so fervently. The CDC is in a reactive mode, because it lacks an intuitive feel for managing threats, which requires a different mindset than for managing a disease. Medical professionals see breaches of protocol, instead of studying soft spots in the defenses to position resources where the next breech will occur. Instead of simply trusting the system to respond as it should, the CDC should be applying its knowledge of the system to anticipate where its next failing will occur.

The need for strong leadership in the face of the ebola threat reminds me of a White House cabinet meeting I attended on Labor Day, 2003. Then President George W. Bush convened a meeting of his full cabinet to discuss the “end of summer” terrorist threat. Concerns were high in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s terror campaign in Saudi Arabia. The Intelligence Community was bombarded with a dizzying array of threats having to do with bombings of airline flights from East Asia to the US. Bush kicked off the meeting by admonishing agency heads to fire up their people and instill a sense of urgency in the response to the threat. He wasn’t addressing the CIA or Defense Department, organizations with extensive experience dealing with foreign threats. He aimed his volleys at the domestic agencies. The President felt that if a terrorist plot slipped through American defenses, it would be the a result of an inadequate response by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other public safety agencies. He asked the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) what had been done to strengthen passenger screening in East Asia on flights to the US. The head of FAA replied that he had personally reviewed the “protocols” in place in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and other East Asian cities, and they were “adequate.” The president went ballistic. “Protocols! I don’t care about protocols. I want to know what is being done. I want to know the procedures that are being used for metal detectors, baggage checks, passenger screening. What are they doing, in Kuala Lumpur?” The FAA chief hung his head, saying, “We don’t have that information.” Bush was energized, turning to his DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, and FBI Director, Robert Mueller, and saying, “did you hear that? We’re not ready for this.” The Intelligence Community reinforced the president’s message by briefing the cabinet on stateside incidents and anomalies that didn’t meet the threshold for normal response mechanisms, but were worthy of attention, in this heightened threat environment.

The point is that an effective response to a serious threat takes a strong leader with a keen intuition of how to handle the threat. In the case of ebola, a reliable response is being made more problematic than in countering terrorism because a threat to national security is being handled by a non-national security culture and bureaucracy.

The US government’s default decision-making process heavily leans on theory, protocol, and procedures to deal with unprecedented events. Being in crisis-mode constricts the range of thought and narrows decision-making further, when precisely the opposite should be happening. Leaders must be capable of stimulating the system to get the answers they need to different questions, than the norm. Leadership’s ability to move an organization from a peace-time to a war-time posture will define whether the response is reactive, or proactive. 

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About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.