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Panel assails disaster relief agency, seeks White House unit to handle crises


WASHINGTON -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should have its top-secret national security functions turned over to the military and a new domestic crisis unit should be created in the White House to handle catastrophes, a blue-ribbon panel recommended yesterday.

"The nation needs a well-organized, effective emergency management system; the panel found it does not have one," said the nine-member committee convened by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The panel was created at the request of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., after Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of South Florida and Louisiana last year.

Regardless of whether FEMA survives, the panel recommended that a "domestic crisis monitoring unit" in the White House coordinate the federal response to disasters the same way the National Security Council coordinates policy toward overseas crises.

The panel argued that responsibility for responding to natural disasters should not be a function of the military, as officials from several states and members of Congress have urged.

"Making this function a routine part of the defense mission would further complicate larger issues of the armed forces' peacetime roles," the report said. "Their primary mission is to prepare for war and to fight if necessary."

Similarly, the report criticized the agency for its "widespread and persistent problems . . . which were intensified by classification restrictions on its national security emergency preparedness programs."

It suggested using most of its high-tech national security equipment for natural disaster programs or transferring them to the Defense Department.

The report came a week after the Palm Beach Post published articles detailing FEMA's top-secret project to provide communications to government leaders in the event of a nuclear war. The articles indicated that from 1982 to 1991, FEMA spent 12 times as much money preparing for nuclear war as for natural disasters.

Responding to those articles last week, FEMA issued a statement that said it had spent 89 percent of its money on "domestic preparedness." Yesterday, an agency spokeswoman acknowledged that the bulk of the agency's spending was for national security.

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