(Adds White House comment, details, background)
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, Oct 26 (Reuters) - The main U.S. disaster-response agency apologized on Friday for having its employees pose as reporters in a news briefing on California’s wildfires that no journalists attended.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, still struggling to restore its image after the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, issued the apology after The Washington Post published details of the Tuesday briefing.
"We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment," FEMA deputy administrator Harvey Johnson, who conducted the briefing, said in a statement. "Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received."
No actual reporter attended the hastily called news conference in person, although some camera crews arrived late to film incidental shots, officials said.
A spokeswoman for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has authority over FEMA, called the incident "inexcusable and offensive to the secretary."
"We have made it clear that stunts such as this will not be tolerated or repeated," spokeswoman Laura Keehner said. She said the department was considering reprimands.
The White House said: "It was just a bad way to handle it." The Bush administration has faced criticism previously over accusations it masked public relations efforts as journalism.
FEMA had called the briefing with about 15 minutes notice as federal officials headed for Southern California to oversee firefighting and rescue efforts. Reporters were also given a phone number to listen in but could not ask questions.
But with no reporters attending and a FEMA video feed being carried live by some television networks, FEMA press employees posed questions for Johnson that included: "Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?"
Johnson replied that he was "very happy with FEMA’s response so far," according to Friday’s Post account, which FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker confirmed,
Johnson also told the briefing that the agency had the benefit of "good leadership" and other factors, "none of which were present at Katrina." Chertoff was head of the Homeland Security Department during Katrina.
FEMA’s administrator during Katrina, Michael Brown, resigned amid widespread criticism over his handling of the disaster, despite U.S. President George W. Bush’s initial declaration that he was doing a "heck of a job."
E-mails between Brown and his colleagues over the course of the storm revealed a preoccupation with his media image. "I am a fashion god," he wrote.
FEMA is reviewing its press procedures and will make changes to ensure they are "straightforward and transparent," Johnson said on Friday.
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said the White House did not condone FEMA’s action and would not engage in such practices.
But in 2004 the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, accused the administration of "covert propaganda" in distributing video packages about federal health programs that looked like independent news reports.
Conservative pundit Armstrong Williams lost a syndication deal for his column in 2005 and apologized after a disclosure that he accepted $240,000 from the Bush administration to promote education legislation in his commentaries.
U.S. defense officials that year also confirmed that U.S. troops wrote articles that were planted in Iraqi newspapers in exchange for money.