The Smoking Gun: Memo Shows Chertoff Didn't Act For 36 Hours Even With Authority To Go Around State Officials
You were waiting for the smoking gun that would blow the lid off the right wing lies about Katrina and highlight the Bush Administration’s inept and potentially negligent response? After John Conyers established earlier in the day that Governor Blanco filed her request for assistance timely, the fine reporters at Knight-Ridder once again get the jump on their overpaid peers at the Post and Times and piece together a key fact tonight, that others like Josh Marshall have noted earlier.
In short, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff abdicated his existing responsibility to activate federal forces without waiting for any request from Governor Blanco, and wasted at least 36 hours of critical time before empowering FEMA to act. And the system wasn’t the problem, it was the White House.
The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show.
Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the "principal federal official" in charge of the storm.
Chertoff - not Brown - was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government's blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.
But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.
On the day that Chertoff wrote the memo, Bush was in San Diego presiding over a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
And playing the guitar.
Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo for the first time declared Katrina an "Incident of National Significance," a key designation that triggers swift federal coordination. The following afternoon, Bush met with his Cabinet, then appeared before TV cameras in the White House Rose Garden to announce the government's planned action.
That same day, Aug. 31, the Department of Defense, whose troops and equipment are crucial in such large disasters, activated its Task Force Katrina. But active-duty troops didn't begin to arrive in large numbers along the Gulf Coast until Saturday.
White House and homeland security officials wouldn't explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn't immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.
Chertoff's hesitation and Bush's creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster - caused by terrorists or Mother Nature - is too big for local officials to handle.
A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff's memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff "does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with - nor does anyone who waits that long," said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989.
"Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there's a potential for losing lives," Becton told Knight Ridder. "I have no idea how many lives we're talking about. ... I don't understand why, except that they were inefficient."
Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo came on the heels of a memo from Brown, written several hours after Katrina made landfall, showing that the FEMA director was waiting for Chertoff's permission to get help from others within the massive department. In that memo, first obtained by the Associated Press last week, Brown requested Chertoff's "assistance to make available DHS employees willing to deploy as soon as possible." It asked for another 1,000 homeland security workers within two days and 2,000 within a week.
And yet the plan was supposed to work, and had worked in the past.
Mike Byrne, a former senior homeland security official under Ridge who worked on the plan, said he doesn't think the new National Response Plan caused the confusion that plagued the early response to Katrina.
Something else went wrong, he suspects. The new National Response Plan isn't all that different from the previous plan, called the Federal Response Plan.
"Our history of responding to major disasters has been one where we've done it well," Byrne said. "We need to figure out why this one didn't go as well as the others did. It's shocking to me."
Perhaps this is the reason why the response failed this time, leading Chertoff to waste at least 36 critical hours:
"The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House", said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.
"It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said.
Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized."It is interesting that hours before Knight Ridder goes with a story that places the blame not on local officials but the Bush Administration, Bush sorta fessed up for the federal government's failings, almost as if the White House knew this was coming. It is also interesting that the day after former FEMA chief Michael Brown fell on his sword, the memo showing that Chertoff for some reason delayed and failed to act timely makes its way into Knight Ridder's hands. Obviously Brown has some friends who are going to set the record straight.