Defense Media Network

An Interview With Adm. Thad Allen (USCG-Ret.)

There are but a few unique American figures who, when you see them or mention their names, immediately bring to mind words such as “trust,” “competency,” and “leadership.” Thad Allen is one of those few.

He is, for lack of a better description, a Walter Cronkite type – one of the most trusted people in America – a man who people turn to and hear straight facts, be they good or bad, with no BS or political showmanship. It’s one of the reasons he was tapped by two very different presidents to manage two very different disasters that no one else seemed capable enough to handle.

With the bungled response to the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, President George W. Bush turned to Allen to begin the nation’s long slog out of the debris and dysfunction left by Hurricane Katrina.

Nearly five years later, in the same Gulf Coast region, President Barack Obama turned to Allen to lead the response and recovery operations to the largest continuous oil spill the world has ever seen.

Retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard in May 2010 after nearly 40 years of service, including four years as the commandant, Allen was asked to continue his service during the BP Gulf oil spill as the national incident commander (NIC). With the flow of oil stopped, the BP oil well officially killed in September, and clean up and recovery operations ramping down, Allen was able to disestablish the National Incident Command and hand off clean-up responsibilities to USCG Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft on Oct. 1, 2010.

Before embarking on his next career of speaking, writing, and teaching at the Rand Corporation’s Homeland Security and Defense Center, and a long-overdue vacation with his wife, Pam, Allen spoke to Rich Cooper during an extended interview for The Year in Homeland Security. Here’s what he had to say.

The Year in Homeland Security: Adm. Allen, you served two different presidents in two of the most intense and costly disasters that this country has ever encountered. What lessons do you think those presidents and the public have learned from these experiences?

Adm. Thad Allen: Well, first of all, I think that we need to understand and hopefully accept the fact we’re going to have large anomalous and unprecedented events, and they’re not always going to fit the molds of the current statutes, regulations, and response plans, and I think we need to learn how to be more flexible and agile in how we adapt. Plus, I think the American public now expects what I would call a whole-of-government response to an event. Whether it’s the Stafford Act for a hurricane response or the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for an oil spill response, things … aren’t always covered specifically in those statutes, and more and more is being demanded by the public. I think there has to be a reconciliation of what we’re going to do about it. Specifically for the oil spill, I’ll give you the examples of seafood safety and behavioral health, societal issues that might need to come in a package to be funded by the federal government.

For all intents and purposes, sir, you’ve become the person the president and the public look to when it comes to handling our worst disasters. What skills do you think you have that enable such confidence and approval from some pretty demanding bosses?

Well, I’m not sure I’d relate it to my personal skills, though I think, generically, anybody who is going to do this kind of work and represent the nation and represent the president and the administration, first of all you’ve got to be prepared to talk to the public and be the face of the response in any situation where the public has concerns about the response. Somebody has to be accountable to the public. Somebody has to speak for the administration. Somebody has to be the face of the response, if you will.

I think the second thing is if you’re not talking about the bit that’s related to defense operations – and all of these are in that category – you need to understand that you’re never going to achieve unity of command as we know it in the military, and you have to do your best to achieve unity of effort. There are always going to be a lot of different authorities and jurisdictions for the different Cabinet departments and agencies, and your real challenge is to try to bring all that together and point it in the same direction; trying to converge on single effects you’re trying to achieve. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds by having that discussion.

We have to be able to integrate a lot of different positions and accommodate a lot of different organizational perspectives. To do that, you’ve just really got to understand that each of these agencies tells us its resources, passion, and commitment and you’ve got to figure out some way to create an individual framework. Some of the challenges we’ve had with Katrina and this oil spill is that some of these agencies have roles and responsibilities that aren’t neatly covered in response doctrine.

Again, a good one to point out would be Health and Human Services as it relates to public health issues regarding the oil spill – that’s not neatly defined in law.

So, the second thing is you’ve got to be able to kind of be that integrator.

I think the third thing is you’ve got to keep a pretty level head. These types of incidents caused a lot of local anguish and put a lot of stress on society. People see their way of life at risk and it’s easy to get really excited and have a confluence of great passions. To the extent that you can de-emotionalize this situation and try and do the right thing and to keep everybody pointed in the same direction without becoming too caught up in the emotion of it, I think it’s probably necessary as well.

Can you describe the feeling or emotion of having those types of responsibilities dropped in your lap knowing that the world, the president, and the public are watching every move you make?

Well, I think you need to do what personally you know is right and what you’ve been trained to do. One of the things that I benefited from greatly is having done this a lot over my career. The first real crisis or disaster I was involved in was shortly after I got out of the Coast Guard Academy. I was assigned to a Coast Guard cutter in Miami, and in the Christmas time [of] 1972, you may even remember, there was an Eastern Airlines L1011, actually flew through the altimeter alarm and straight into the Everglades south of Miami.

I was on the ground rescue team for that operation, and over 100 people were killed in that crash. After 39 years of handling mass casualty cases, oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, and all that kind of stuff, you start to understand what needs to be done and you can focus on the doctrine and trying to achieve the effects and not get too swept up in the attention of the mass media or the emotion of the thing.

What skills do we need to be developing in the public and private sectors to better respond to disasters whenever they occur?

Well, there are different capabilities and capacities that are needed at every level, but I think for the purpose of your question I might focus on senior leadership. I’ve been involved off and on with a program out of Harvard University called the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

I don’t want to single one program out, but I think it’s extremely useful to take a look at the work they’re doing on meta-leadership. The elements of that program are very important. If you look at Katrina and you look at the oil spill, a couple of those things really come into play. One of them is managing across a stove-piped organization.

The other one is the interrelationship of subject-matter experts and political leaders, and how you manage their interface going forward. I’m a big supporter of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and this concept of meta-leadership.

Was there ever any point that you said to yourself, either during Katrina or the Gulf oil spill, “There’s no way to fix this situation and I need to get the hell out of here?”

I think if you believe you’re going to get to a point where there’s no way to fix it and you have to leave, you shouldn’t take the job to begin with. You should take the job knowing that things may seem intractable, but part of the reason you’re there is to create the art of the possible even where it appears that none exists.

Frankly, a lot of times the solutions to these very complex problems are really beyond the intellectual cognition capability of a single individual. You’ve got to get everybody in the room and pick their brains and do everything you can to make the situation right.

In both cases [Katrina and the Gulf oil spill], I had conversations with my wife about whether or not we could be successful at this kind of a role, and while we talked about it – it was an interesting conversation – it didn’t play into my decision whether or not to take the job, because you’ve got to understand part of the reason you’re going to take the job in one of these things is people are going to expect you to create an opportunity where none exists.

Throughout your career, you’ve been a student of leadership. Who were the leaders that have inspired you and been your models for the work that you’ve done?

Well, I look more at personal qualities than the actual position that was held. I think people that have moral courage and emotional intelligence are very, very important. I remember meeting with him many, many years ago and being absolutely astounded at the courage and the leadership of Anwar Sadat, to actually sit down and try and create a constructive way ahead with Israel when he led Egypt. Undoubtedly, those actions and others probably led ultimately to his assassination, but I think it was an extraordinary display of moral courage, what he did there.

Among my contemporaries, people I look at that I’ve got a lot [of]  … comfort and inspiration from are frankly guys like [Gen.] Pete Pace and [Adm.] Mike Mullen, who I think are very strong, upright characters that are great models – and friends and mentors to me. I think Secretary [of Defense Robert M.] Gates has been just a terrific secretary of defense. People that are able to persevere with these extraordinary problems and exhibit the moral courage at the same time I think are terrific role models.

Both Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill have had some very strong criticisms leveled against the government about the speed of response. Is this type of negative reaction just part of the immediate post-event common operating picture or is there some way leaders can better communicate the complexity of dealing with such circumstances?

Well, aside from the fact that there may be merit to some of the things that happened regarding the speed and the decisions that were made, and there are always going to be things that you could do better, I think there are two over-riding considerations here. I think one of them is the news cycle, social media; and the fact that everything is visible to everybody makes it very, very difficult to stand up and deal with the start of issues even with a very finely honed plan to get people in place and resources where they need to be.

Anybody that conducts a major operation right now is going to do [it] under unflinching oversight in the glare of cameras and probably intensive oversight by the Congress, and that’s just a permanent feature of how we work. It was like that before these two events and quite frankly everyday operations by the Coast Guard or anybody else are subjected to that.

I think the other issue associated with that is the expectations of the American public about what the federal government will do far exceed the legislation, the authorities, and the funding from the response mechanisms that are currently in place, and I think it’s a fundamental public policy issue that has to be dealt with moving forward.

Do we want to deal with mental health problems in a community related to the impact of one of these events and is that the responsibility of the federal government, because there was an issue involving Katrina and this oil spill … clearly not completely covered by either the Stafford Act or the Oil Spill Act Liability Trust Fund.

You mentioned the use of social media. You are one of the most public persons using tools such as Facebook and Twitter to share news, thoughts, and other information. What has this medium done for you and what have you learned from its use?

I would actually reverse the question (laughs). I would say, social media exists so how are you going to adapt to it? (Laughs.)

Let me explain what I mean by that. A while back I had the opportunity to listen to John Holdren, who is the science and technology advisor to the president, talk about climate change. There was an event in New York last year in October. It was called World Maritime Day, and he did a tremendous presentation on climate change, and the bottom line of his presentation was when he looked at the audience and said there are three strategies in dealing with climate change: Suffer, adapt, or manage. I thought long and hard about what he’d said in regard to the environment and it struck me that social media, the 7/24 news cycle, the Internet, the power of computation today … with all this collectively, media has created a change in our political, social, economic, and behavioral environments. I would consider social media, the Internet, and everything related to that as being the sociological equivalent of climate change. It doesn’t matter whether you like it, embrace it or not, the fact of the matter is it just is. To steal the paradigm from John Holdren, when you’re talking about social media and the complete immersion in information, I think there are three strategies: Suffer, adapt, or manage. I chose to adapt and manage.

And, you’ve done a very good job of it, too. What was harder to deal with: Katrina or the oil spill?

Oh, they’re both very different. I noted the president was interviewed by [NBC News’] Brian Williams the other day on the anniversary of Katrina and he had a quote and I’m still trying to decode what he meant. He said the only thing common to Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill was Thad Allen, and I didn’t know if that was cause or effect. (Laughs.)

They’re obviously very different events. I would say some of the parameters that differentiated them were that Katrina, while it was a monstrous storm and natural catastrophe and it took a huge, huge toll in human life, it had a beginning and an end fairly quickly. Within 48 to 72 hours we were actually able to understand what had happened.

For the first 80-plus days of this oil spill, it was an indeterminate event. We didn’t know when it was going to end. The oil was omni-directional – depending on the wind and the current we didn’t know where it was going to go. It was breaking down into hundreds of thousands of patches of oil and was holding the entire Gulf at risk and we were basically trying to defend the entire Gulf Coast against an oil spill that we didn’t know how big it was going to be, when it was going to end, and where it was going to come from.

The uncertainty associated with that and how that translated into the socioeconomic impacts to the Gulf I think differentiated somewhat from Katrina, and the other one is, obviously, you’ve probably heard me talk about the fact that the technology that was required to fix this problem was not resident as an element of national power in the federal government. This is very much closer to Apollo 13 than the Exxon Valdez in regard to lack of human access at the source and what it took to actually control and contain it.

What was the biggest challenge and disappointment in serving in these two monumental moments in American history?

I’ve been often asked if there’s anything I would have done differently or if I had a chance to do over again what would I do differently during Hurricane Katrina, and the answer may be kind of quizzical, but I tell everybody I would like to have a chance to have been there on the 25th of August. If you remember, the storm came ashore on the 29th of August and I was sitting down there a week later on Labor Day, which was the 5th of September.

I would like to have had a crack at doing what I could do based on my experience as the storm was coming ashore, which I think migrates us toward trying to resurrect the notion of having a federal official that’s responsible down there on ground from the beginning. That [person] could represent the federal government and be accountable and interface with local authorities before the storm comes ashore and be able to effectively manage resources afterwards.

The entire concept of principal federal official has been somewhat impeached and the brand name has been kind of diminished following Katrina. I guess maybe some of that may be due to my account because a lot of people think that if you have a principal federal official assigned to an event, that’s tantamount to an admission that somebody below has failed or somehow the local government needs help – it’s extraordinary because they can’t do it.

That is a total misread of what the federal government needs to do and a total misread of how we need to work together when one of these things happens. So I would say overall I think I would rather that had not happened, but the fact of the matter is in relation to Katrina, I had little choice other than do what I did down there, and some folks thought I probably exceeded the authority of a principal federal official in directing operations when it was critically needed and very much different from the FEMA model, which pulls resources in support of state and local governments. So, it would be nice if we could emerge with that concept in place, because we’re always going to need a senior federal official to be accountable and state and local officials to deal with.

Since you entered the Coast Guard, its mission space and responsibilities have evolved tremendously. The spill aftermath seems to indicate even more responsibilities will be coming its way. With all that it has on its plate, does the Coast Guard have the resources to do those jobs effectively or are we risking shortchanging some of these critical missions?

Well you know after 9/11 and after Katrina and after the oil spill, everybody was saying the Coast Guard missions have grown. The fact of the matter is our missions don’t grow appreciably. All of these responsibilities we’ve had for many, many years. It’s not so much a matter of mission growth, it’s at what level if you want to resource a multi-mission agency to be able to do different things and different things at once.

You know, the value proposition of the Coast Guard is that we have a cutter that can do five things so you don’t need five cutters. But the fact of the matter is, that cutter can’t be five places at the same time.

There’s always going to be an inherent risk assessment associated with how you allocate resources. So it becomes more of a matter of aligning capacity to the Coast Guard. The more capacity you put in the Coast Guard, the more it is capable of doing more things for the country and being more flexible and versatile and being able to solve problems, including incidents of national significance.

The less Coast Guard you have, you’re going to have to take a larger risk position and decide what it is you’re going to do with the resources you’ve got.

So I guess the real question is, it’s not mission growth for the Coast Guard, but how much Coast Guard is enough to mitigate the likely risk that this country needs, and we’ve never had the discussion based on the risk and what the Coast Guard should be doing. It’s always an incremental change to the last year’s budget levels. It’s always involved a series of tradeoffs related to constrained budgets and never a discussion of risk. A frank, open discussion of risk related to resources is a conversation that traditionally this country’s not been willing to have.

What do you know at this point in your career that you wish you had known when you started?

Well, two things happened in my career. I was in operational units for 13 years, and up to that point I had never had a staff job, worked at a district office or headquarters. I decided that if I was going to go any further in the Coast Guard, a couple of things better happen. Number one, I’d better get some post-graduate education and go to grad school, and number two, I’d better figure out how the Coast Guard works above the operational level.

I think probably if I’d had one of those tours earlier on, I’d have been more effective, but as far as learning how the budget works, how to make policy decisions, how we figure in the national frameworks, how we deal with the Congress, and that kind of stuff, I learned that much later in the game then most folks. In fact, my first tour at headquarters didn’t come about until I was actually a senior commander.

In the course of your career, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with a range of leaders, from the leaders from other military branches to elected senior and government officials, corporate executives, community leaders; and so forth. When you look at all these various people and examine our preparedness environment today, what are the leadership qualities that you think we need to be developing to respond to national incidents?

I’m going to give you what I think are generic things that leaders need to do throughout their careers that will make them more effective. It’s based purely on my own experience and some of that’s related back to some of the discussion about meta-leadership. I’d say the first one, undoubtedly, is to engage in lifelong learning. I think your ability to come into a situation and adapt rapidly has everything to do with your intellectual capability to understand things that you didn’t know going in.

Two challenges I had with Katrina and the oil spill were to deal with the technical issues, say, of levee height and levee construction and understand that, and then there were the issues related to deep sea drilling. You don’t have to know it going in, but you have to be a pretty quick study, and you’re a better quick study the more you engage in lifelong learning and intellectually refresh yourself. You should be intellectually curious about what’s going on in your world around you. So, I would say that’s number one.

Number two, you need to be flexible and agile. You need to understand there’s usually not one right answer, but if you get too focused on where you sit in the world or in an organization, you’re liable not to get the right world view you need or create the right context to make a decision, and I think it’s really, really important. That’s the reason I think one of the greatest things the Coast Guard teaches our people – and we do it inadvertently I think sometimes – is how to be bureaucratically multi-lingual. [That allows us] to be able to move from the incident command system to the joint operational planning and execution system for DoD [the Department of Defense]. So flexibility and agility I think are really important.

Number three is you’ve got to learn how to manage your own morale. When you’re in a situation like many commanding officers are in or people that are running large complex responses, there are not a whole lot of people around that can buoy your spirits, give you positive feedback. There are going to be a lot of times where you’re going to get negative feedback for a long, long time before you get any positive feedback. You have to be able to ascertain what you need to do, lay out a course of action, identify the effects to be achieved, and then go after that; and you have to do that with a fairly stable emotional base to work from. That’s not easy to do because you can get very angry and frustrated.

You know people will grade your performance during this particular response, and I had a lot of people say that I should be fired. You’ve got to figure out how to kind of put that aside and do what you need to do and not let it rent too much space in your head. So those are three examples.

You mentioned that there were people who wanted you fired and had negative things to say. You’ve certainly encountered a number of dysfunctional and strong personalities of people who wanted to do things in a different way other than what might have otherwise been advisable. How did you deal with those situations to get those persons either on the same page as you, or just move forward without them?

Well, the first thing you do is you follow the old proverb “Don’t engage in an argument just because one is possible.” You can always find something to argue about and always find something where you don’t agree. I think the first thing you’ve got to do is find out where you do agree, lock down that, make an agreement, and start achieving effects based on what you both believe can be done and then start expanding that and just try and get better information about what you think needs to happen and how you both can contribute to that.

I think an excellent example is the work that [Rear Adm.] Paul Zukunft [Allen’s successor for the Gulf oil spill response] has done recently in creating transition plans and moving from response to recovery for each of the parishes in Louisiana. This is a long, laborious, painstaking process and it’s taken several weeks to work on, but you start out with what you can agree to.

You look at the constraints you have in law and regulation, appropriations, and so forth, and you take the trade space you have left and you just keep working it, and you work it relentlessly, and when you do, it will come out all right, and it has.

Last question for you: What’s next for Thad Allen?

Well, I have a delayed vacation because I had promised my wife we would go to Ireland for two weeks. I have to make sure that happens sometime in the next year or so.

(Laughs.) This year or next year?

Well, whenever we get to it. We want to build a house somewhere in Northern Virginia so grandma can have a place to have the grandkids over, and that needs to happen in the next year or so.

Regarding me personally, I’ve been looking at think tanks, federally funded research and development centers, and then I need an opportunity to be able to talk about some of these experiences and maybe even write about them and share what I’ve learned along the way.

If anyone deserves the vacation, sir, it is certainly you and your wife. Thank you for your time and incredible service to all of us.



Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...