Fed sites silent on attacks

Federal Emergency Management Agency

For hours after airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., virtually all official government Web sites remained silent on the unfolding disaster.

Only the Federal Emergency Management Agency used its Web site to post information about the government's response.

With the Pentagon on fire across the river and the twin sky scrapers collapsing in New York City, FEMA posted an announcement that it was working with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top government officials to respond to the apparent terrorist attacks.

A short time later, the announcement was updated with links to FEMA's terrorism "concept of operations," terrorism fact sheets, urban search and rescue data and other relevant information.

A second posting announced that FEMA's emergency response team in Washington, New York and nine other locations had been put on 24-hour operations. It also said that urban search and rescue teams and medical and mortuary teams had been dispatched to New York and Washington.

But for hours, the White House Web site continued to display a day-old notice that President Bush was concerned about the nation's economy. Finally, about noon, a brief statement by the president was posted. And later in the afternoon, a somewhat longer statement was added.

All day, the FBI's Web site featured a story about George "Machine Gun" Kelly, the gangster who in 1933 referred to FBI agents as "G-men." The FBI is the lead law enforcement agency responding to the terrorist attacks.

And the Justice Department - whose leader, the attorney general, is the nation's chief law enforcement officer - made no mention of the attacks or its role in responding to them.

"There is a tremendous demand for information when something like this happens," said John Spotila, former chief of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. "In that context, I think it is appropriate for the government to kick into action" to get authoritative information to the public. "Hopefully this will be one of the lessons learned."

More news on the White House site could have been valuable for rumor control and to keep the public informed, agreed Frank Reeder, an assistant OMB director for management during the Clinton administration.

One reason the White House site was so slow may have been that the White House was evacuated, Reeder said. "They wanted to get people out of harm's way."

During the afternoon FEMA added an audio file to its Web offerings. In it, spokesman Marc Wolfson said it is important for the public to know that there was a response plan in place and that the government was offering assistance to the victims of the attacks.

FEMA's emergency response centers "will be up and running 24 hours a day for as long as takes to get through this," Wolfson assured.

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