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September 14, 2005

How Bush Blew It: Don't let this Newsweek story slip under the radar

How the Katrina "timeline" looked from inside the West Wing, from the anonymous aides' points of view.

Some great lines in here. I'm loathe to take anything out, but the best bits are in bold.

Link: How Bush Blew It   - Newsweek: International Editions - MSNBC.com.

How Bush Blew It

After-Action Report: Bureaucratic timidity. Bad phone lines. And a failure of imagination. Why the government was so slow to respond to catastrophe.

By Evan Thomas
Newsweek

Sept. 19, 2005 issue - It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS. The bad news on this early morning, Tuesday, Aug. 30, some 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans, was that the president would have to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days and return to Washington. The president's chief of staff, Andrew Card; his deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin; his counselor, Dan Bartlett, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, held a conference call to discuss the question of the president's early return and the delicate task of telling him. Hagin, it was decided, as senior aide on the ground, would do the deed.

In other words, he drew the short stick.

The president did not growl this time. He had already decided to return to Washington and hold a meeting of his top advisers on the following day, Wednesday. This would give them a day to get back from their vacations and their staffs to work up some ideas about what to do in the aftermath of the storm. President Bush knew the storm and its consequences had been bad; but he didn't quite realize how bad.

In my book, that kind of ignorance when you hold the kind of responsibility that comes with his office, is simply criminal. It seems clear that when Bush goes on vacation, he doesn't read briefings about "Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S." or even eyeball the Weather Channel as if he were a true steward of his nation. "Steward" would be the one word that, as president, will never be applied to George W. Bush. It would mean care-taking and watchfulness, the watchfulness of an earnest baby-sitter, if not a parent, not just a petulant bureaucrat who is mostly wholely concerned, when concerns are allowed to penetrate the indifferent sons of the rich and powerful, with covering his own ass. This kind of unconcern in a president should be an impeachable offense, if utter incompetence counts as such a thing.

The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

[...]

But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there.

Where I come from that would be called having your head permanently stuck up your ass. Of course, many of us have been suspecting Bush was this out of it for many years now. What a contrast to the high-level policy wonk hyper-awareness of President Clinton, eh?

Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it's mostly a one-way street.

[...]

When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn't act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority.

[...]

The failure of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina worked like a power blackout. Problems cascaded and compounded; each mistake made the next mistake worse. The foe in this battle was a monster; Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast with the strength of a vengeful god. But human beings, beginning with the elected officials of the City of New Orleans, failed to anticipate and react in time.

Congressional investigations will take months to sort out who is to blame. A NEWSWEEK reconstruction of the government's response to the storm shows how Bush's leadership style and the bureaucratic culture combined to produce a disaster within a disaster.

Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, didn't want to evacuate. New Orleanians have a fatalistic streak; their joyful, jazz-blowing street funeral processions are legendary. After many near misses over the years since Hurricane Betsy flooded 20 percent of the city in 1965, longtime residents prefer to stay put. Nagin's eye had long been on commerce, not catastrophe. A former executive at Cox Communications, he had come to office in 2002 to clear out the allegedly corrupt old guard and bring new business to the city, which has not prospered with New South metropolises like Atlanta. During Nagin's mayoral campaign, the promises were about jobs, not stronger floodwalls and levees.

But on Saturday night, as Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Nagin talked to Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center. "Max Mayfield has scared me to death," Nagin told City Councilwoman Cynthia Morrell early Sunday morning. "If you're scared, I'm scared," responded Morrell, and the mandatory order went out to evacuate the city—about a day later than for most other cities and counties along the Gulf Coast.

As Katrina howled outside Monday morning and the windows of the Hyatt Hotel, where the mayor had set up his command post, began popping out, Nagin and his staff lay on the floor. Then came eerie silence. Morrell decided to go look at her district, including nearby Gentilly. Outside, Canal Street was dry. "Phew," Morrell told her driver, "that was close." But then, from the elevated highway, she began seeing neighborhoods under eight to 15 feet of water. "Holy God," she thought to herself. Then she spotted her first dead body.

At dusk, on the ninth floor of city hall, the mayor and the city council had their first encounter with the federal government. A man in a blue FEMA windbreaker arrived to brief them on his helicopter flyover of the city. He seemed unfamiliar with the city's geography, but he did have a sense of urgency. "Water as far as the eye can see," he said. It was worse than Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Camille in 1969. "I need to call Washington," he said. "Do you have a conference-call line?" According to an aide to the mayor, he seemed a little taken aback when the answer was no. Long neglected in the city budget, communications within the New Orleans city government were poor, and eventually almost nonexistent when the batteries on the few old satellite phones died. The FEMA man found a phone, but he had trouble reaching senior officials in Washington. When he finally got someone on the line, the city officials kept hearing him say, "You don't understand, you don't understand."

Around New Orleans, three levees had overtopped or were broken. The city was doomed. There was no way the water could be stopped. But, incredibly, the seriousness of the situation did not really register, not only in Washington, but at the state emergency command post upriver in Baton Rouge.

This part strains my credulity, since most of these people had direct contact with the drill on the fake "Hurricane Pam" the year before. From the hurricane experts I've seen on TV, the most standout issue that surely made even the top paragraph of the executive summary of that report would be "devasting flooding in New Orleans once levees are breached, with massive loss of life." That much seems abundantly clear.

[...]

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a motherly but steely figure known by the nickname Queen Bee, knew that she needed help. But she wasn't quite sure what. At about 8 p.m., she spoke to Bush. "Mr. President," she said, "we need your help. We need everything you've got."

Bush, the governor later recalled, was reassuring. But the conversation was all a little vague. Blanco did not specifically ask for a massive intervention by the active-duty military. "She wouldn't know the 82nd Airborne from the Harlem Boys' Choir," said an official in the governor's office, who did not wish to be identified talking about his boss's conversations with the president. There are a number of steps Bush could have taken, short of a full-scale federal takeover, like ordering the military to take over the pitiful and (by now) largely broken emergency communications system throughout the region. But the president, who was in San Diego preparing to give a speech the next day on the war in Iraq, went to bed.

Mind the president's uncomplicated beauty rest now. The blissful sleep of the criminally clueless.

By the predawn hours, most state and federal officials finally realized that the 17th Street Canal levee had been breached, and that the city was in serious trouble. Bush was told at 5 a.m. Pacific Coast time and immediately decided to cut his vacation short. To his senior advisers, living in the insular presidential bubble, the mere act of lopping off a couple of presidential vacation days counts as a major event. They could see pitfalls in sending Bush to New Orleans immediately. His presence would create a security nightmare and get in the way of the relief effort. Bush blithely proceeded with the rest of his schedule for the day, accepting a gift guitar at one event and pretending to riff like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."

That didn't stop them from sending the president into an active disaster zone in Florida last year. I heard plenty of complaints then about the presidential entourage disrupting relief efforts, making it harder for folks to get bottled water, having to route all the way around the security zone. And, my memory is bad, but I think that happened within TWO DAYS of the big hurricane hitting last year near Punta Gorda. But then, in that part of Florida, there were votes on the line.

Bush might not have appeared so carefree if he had been able to see the fearful faces on some young police officers—the ones who actually showed up for roll call at the New Orleans Second District police headquarters that morning. The radio was reporting water nine feet deep at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles streets. The looting and occasional shooting had begun. At 2 o'clock on the morning of the storm, only 82 of 120 cops had obeyed a summons to report for duty. Now the numbers were dwindling; within a day, only 28 or 30 officers would be left to save the stranded and fight the looters, recalled a sad and exhausted Capt. Eddie Hosli, speaking to a NEWSWEEK reporter last week.

[...]

At emergency headquarters in Baton Rouge, confusion raged. Though more than 100,000 of its residents had no way to get out of the city on their own, New Orleans had no real evacuation plan, save to tell people to go to the Superdome and wait for buses. On Tuesday, the state was rounding up buses; no, FEMA was; no, FEMA's buses would take too long to get there... and so on. On Tuesday afternoon, Governor Blanco took her second trip to the Superdome and was shocked by the rising tide of desperation there. There didn't seem to be nearly enough buses, boats or helicopters.

Early Wednesday morning, Blanco tried to call Bush. She was transferred around the White House for a while until she ended up on the phone with Fran Townsend, the president's Homeland Security adviser, who tried to reassure her but did not have many specifics.

What, did she interrupt a game of presidential shuffleboard? What big "situation" in the White House was upstaging a desperate phone call from the region of the country that should have been Priority One? We know the Iraq War has never been Priority One, because the people supposedly running it blythely took a five-week vacation and couldn't really be interupted to have their head in anything else. I mean, he interrupted his vacation for the disaster, so wouldn't the folks in the White House, um, you know, been giving full attention to the disaster?

Hours later, Blanco called back and insisted on speaking to the president. When he came on the line, the governor recalled, "I just asked him for help, 'whatever you have'." She asked for 40,000 troops. "I just pulled a number out of the sky," she later told NEWSWEEK.

The Pentagon was not sitting idly. By Tuesday morning (and even before the storm) the military was moving supplies, ships, boats, helicopters and troops toward the Gulf Coast. But, ironically, the scale of the effort slowed it. TV viewers had difficulty understanding why TV crews seemed to move in and out of New Orleans while the military was nowhere to be seen. But a TV crew is five people in an RV. Before the military can send in convoys of trucks, it has to clear broken and flooded highways. The military took over the shattered New Orleans airport for emergency airlifts, but special teams of Air Force operators had to be sent in to make it ready. By the week after the storm, the military had mobilized some 70,000 troops and hundreds of helicopters—but it took at least two days and usually four and five to get them into the disaster area. Looters and well-armed gangs, like TV crews, moved faster.

Funny thing about Chinooks and Blackhawks and such, choppers that just fly up and then they show up. Mobilization? People were dying and someone was worried about whether they all took off at the same time?! Whether the boots were shined? Hell, dribble the Chinooks and Hueys out, if it gets the fucking job done. The National Guard, if it were actually present and equipped in Louisiana and Mississippi would surely have done that, since they were only missing a "third" of their people who were in Iraq. If that was the case, however, why were ANY numbers of National Guard so MIA all week, until that Friday? My guess is that the third of them that were in Iraq had all the transport equipment there with them. I'm wondering if every state's equipment stores are similarly non-existent.

I am also concerned that for all the media sites publishing "timelines," there aren't any researching side-by-side timelines with Hurricane Ivan, not because they were comparable storms, but didn't that FEMA response occur AFTER FEMA was absorbed into Homeland Security? I want to see an Ivan timeline, and a Charley timeline, and a Frances timeline...

In the inner councils of the Bush administration, there was some talk of gingerly pushing aside the overwhelmed "first responders," the state and local emergency forces, and sending in active-duty troops. But under an 1868 law, federal troops are not allowed to get involved in local law enforcement. The president, it's true, could have invoked the Insurrections Act, the so-called Riot Act. But Rumsfeld's aides say the secretary of Defense was leery of sending in 19-year-old soldiers trained to shoot people in combat to play policemen in an American city, and he believed that National Guardsmen trained as MPs were on the way.

Hmmm, I wonder where they were, and why Rummy didn't know where they were. And why would the federal troops have to "push aside" the state and local relief efforts? In a disaster with all hands on deck, wouldn't more hands be better? What's with all this "we're helping now so you aren't allowed to help" bullshit? The people who snuck in with aid and the firefighters who found a way around the FEMA assholes who were turning back truckloads and aid offers from other states were the folks who actually saved lives. Can we charge those FEMA assholes with murder like they did the nursing home administrators who didn't evacuate and forced those infirm people to die horrible deaths? Why the hell were minor FEMA bureaucrats turning aid back, anyway? It seems so absurd, but it's well-documented. Were the offers coming from people who for some reason didn't have embedded chips under their skin saying they'd already been to the Homeland Security proctologist and were certified not to be harboring terrorist implements up their asses?

If you ask me, those FEMA bureaucrats turning back the aid trucks and rejecting offers from others states WERE TERRORISTS. They were terrorizing the people of New Orleans.

If I were being a real paranoiac, I might say that it appears that FEMA was blockading the city from anything getting in, what in military terms would be called a "siege," in order to manipulate a response from either the governor or the mayor in some kind of extended "turf war." I mean, sure, everyone is crying "incompetence" when it comes to FEMA's non-response, but I seriously wonder if we aren't seeing more method in the FEMA madness that suggests competence, but with goals at cross-purposes with the relief efforts. Was New Orleans being held hostage by a federal agency trying to establish a jurisdictional precedent that would normally be unheard of? Is there any reason why FEMA can't support overwhelmed state and local disaster coordinators who actually know the maps and such, KNOW where the shelters ARE, without having to utterly take over and fuck up royally? When did the disaster response become more about a FEMA power grab and less about helping people?

The one federal agency that is supposed to handle disasters—FEMA—was dysfunctional. On Wednesday morning, Senator Landrieu was standing outside the chaotic Superdome and asked to borrow a FEMA official's phone to call her office in Washington. "It didn't work," she told Newsweek. "I thought to myself, 'This isn't going to be pretty'." Once a kind of petty-cash drawer for congressmen to quickly hand out aid after floods and storms, FEMA had improved in the 1990s in the Clinton administration. But it became a victim of the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences. After 9/11 raised the profile of disaster response, FEMA was folded into the sprawling Department of Homeland Security and effectively weakened. FEMA's boss, Bush's close friend Joe Allbaugh, quit when he lost his cabinet seat. (Now a consultant, Allbaugh was down on the Gulf Coast last week looking for contracts for his private clients.) Allbaugh replaced himself with his college buddy Mike Brown, whose last private-sector job (omitted from his official resume) had been supervising horse-show judges for the International Arabian Horse Association. After praising Brown ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of job"), Bush last week removed him from honchoing the Katrina relief operation. He was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen. The Coast Guard was one agency that performed well, rescuing thousands.

I'm glad to hear that the facts about the Coast Guard back up my perceptions as an observer. In all the awfulness, the Coast Guard was, in my mind, both tireless and heroic, and they impressed the hell out of me even without the media telling me what johnny-on-the-spots they were.

Bad news rarely flows up in bureaucracies. For most of those first few days, Bush was hearing what a good job the Feds were doing. Bush likes "metrics," numbers to measure performance, so the bureaucrats gave him reassuring statistics. At a press availability on Wednesday, Bush duly rattled them off: there were 400 trucks transporting 5.4 million meals and 13.4 million liters of water along with 3.4 million pounds of ice. Yet it was obvious to anyone watching TV that New Orleans had turned into a Third World hellhole.

I can't remember where I heard it, but the rumor running around is that some FEMA people are complaining that they were forced to stop doing important things, urgent things, in order to drop everything and run down those fucking statistics for the clueless president to spout off at a press conference.

The denial and the frustration finally collided aboard Air Force One on Friday. As the president's plane sat on the tarmac at New Orleans airport, a confrontation occurred that was described by one participant as "as blunt as you can get without the Secret Service getting involved."

I think this means folks got all up in each other's faces with hard words, nearly coming to blows. Is that how you read it?

Governor Blanco was there, along with various congressmen and senators and Mayor Nagin (who took advantage of the opportunity to take a shower aboard the plane). One by one, the lawmakers listed their grievances as Bush listened. Rep. Bobby Jindal, whose district encompasses New Orleans, told of a sheriff who had called FEMA for assistance. According to Jindal, the sheriff was told to e-mail his request, "and the guy was sitting in a district underwater and with no electricity," Jindal said, incredulously. "How does that make any sense?" Jindal later told NEWSWEEK that "almost everybody" around the conference table had a similar story about how the federal response "just wasn't working." With each tale, "the president just shook his head, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing," says Jindal, a conservative Republican and Bush appointee who lost a close race to Blanco. Repeatedly, the president turned to his aides and said, "Fix it."

Wow, what a take-charge guy. He has no connection with what must be done TO "fix it," but he can strut around demanding results all day long like a detached banty rooster. Generally, I thought the qualifications of a leader meant seeing that stuff got done when the folks further down the chain of command needed more help or intervention, rather than barking the command back DOWN the faltering chain of command. People went up the org chart to try to find where the buck stopped, where they could get some real help, and when they got to Bush, he just turned around and passed the buck right back down.

According to Sen. David Vitter, a Republican ally of Bush's, the meeting came to a head when Mayor Nagin blew up during a fraught discussion of "who's in charge?" Nagin slammed his hand down on the table and told Bush, "We just need to cut through this and do what it takes to have a more-controlled command structure. If that means federalizing it, let's do it."

A debate over "federalizing" the National Guard had been rattling in Washington for the previous three days. Normally, the Guard is under the control of the state governor, but the Feds can take over—if the governor asks them to. Nagin suggested that Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the Pentagon's on-scene commander, be put in charge. According to Senator Vitter, Bush turned to Governor Blanco and said, "Well, what do you think of that, Governor?" Blanco told Bush, "I'd rather talk to you about that privately." To which Nagin responded, "Well, why don't you do that now?"

The meeting broke up. Bush and Blanco disappeared to talk. More than a week later, there was still no agreement. Blanco didn't want to give up her authority, and Bush didn't press. Jindal suggested that Bush appoint Colin Powell as a kind of relief czar, and Bush replied, "I'll take that into consideration." Bush does not like to fire people. He told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to go down to Louisiana and sort out the various problems. A day later FEMA's Brown was on his way back to Washington.

Another day of people dying because "Bush doesn't like to fire people"? The governor had asked the feds to step in the Saturday before the hurricane hit, but it isn't like they pre-deployed more than seven FEMA teams, and a small number of National Guard troops that were never visible on any video reports I saw. I saw Coast Guard, city police, and lots of people all by themselves, while firefighters were sitting in Atlanta getting sexual harrassment training because they had advance homeland security background checks. See, because its more important to have a background check than to get help for people who are dying.

Late last week, Bush was, by some accounts, down and angry. But another Bush aide described the atmosphere inside the White House as "strangely surreal and almost detached."

What happened, did the "reality-based universe" trump the spinners? Oh, that must have been a sad day at the White House, the utter failure to control spin and manufacture reality into some constructed image. I doubt anyone was sad at the tragedy in New Orleans. They could have been sad about that days earlier, and actually done something about it.

At one meeting described by this insider, officials were oddly self-congratulatory, perhaps in an effort to buck each other up. Life inside a bunker can be strange, especially in defeat.

Sorry Newsweek, but I'm not buying your bizarre ending to this story. Yes, it most certainly was a defeat. And maybe they still aren't monitoring the nation as real stewards in there, and instead sit in silence in the bunker. But I'm more inclined to believe if there were any self-congratulations to be had, any high-fives to be given out (I'm thinking of those goofy scenes in the TV show "The West Wing") it would be because they actually were looking forward to some future scheme or planned victory, perhaps knowing something about Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts we don't. I don't know why else there could be glee at this time on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Unless they are so cold toward the tragedy, they don't feel it, and instead just feel happy they survived it. But then you must compare what the White House handlers survived to what the people of New Orleans survived. I don't see the surviors of New Orleans being self congratulatory that they made it.

September 14, 2005 at 01:54 AM in Best Essays, Current Affairs, Favorite Links, Media & Journalism, News to Note, Politics, Rhetoric, Singing the Bite Me Song, Television, War/Terrorism | Permalink

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