"How Bush Blew It;" A Newsweek Expose
On September 11, a Newsweek article hit the Web, eight days before its publication in the September 19 issue. The article is titled "How Bush Blew It," and not only examines the federal government's failure to respond to the Katrina disaster, it examines the inner workings of the senior Bush officials who are directly responsible for the failure. This is the kind of article that, if taken seriously enough by the American people, can lead to the collapse of an administration.
- Apparently Bush's staff were more worried about informing the president that he would have to cut short his vacation and respond to the hurricane than most other concerns; Newsweek author Evan Thomas writes, "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...." Deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin was eventually slated to deliver the bad news. Fortunately, Bush had already decided to return to Washington a bit early: "Bush knew the storm and its consequences had been bad; but he didn't quite realize how bad. 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 [Dan] 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." Thomas asks, "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."
- Part of that answer lies in the fact that, more than most presidents, Bush has surrounded himself with a coterie of loyalist yes men. "Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty," writes Thomas. "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."
- It is not sure what advice Bush received before he finally decided to do something. It is known that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld advised against sending in stateside military troops to help. Whatever Dick Cheney advised, over videoconference links from his vacation home in Wyoming, is not known. "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. ...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."
- It is known that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin originally opposed mandatory evacuations. Nagin changed his mind on Saturday night, two days before the storm, after hearing from 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," Morrell replied, 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.
- Monday evening, Nagin and the New Orleans city council had their first encounter with FEMA management. A single official in a blue windbreaker came in to talk with them after flying over the city in a helicopter. Although the official was unfamiliar with the geography of New Orleans and the surrounding areas, he knew the situation was dire. "Water as far as the eye can see," he said. "I need to call Washington," he said. "Do you have a conference-call line?" He was astonished to find that the answer was no; in spite of Homeland Security mandates, and long unaddressed by city budgets, the only communications were a few old satellite phones with half-dead batteries. When the FEMA official did manage to reach Washington, he had trouble reaching senior officials. The city officials kept hearing him say, "You don't understand, you don't understand." The seriousness of the situation had not yet registered either in Washington or in the halls of state government in Baton Rouge. "Nobody was saying it wasn't a catastrophe," recalls Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu. "We were saying, 'Thank you, God,' because the experts were telling the governor it could have been even worse." Governor Kathleen Blanco knew that the problem was more severe than the optimistic happy talk some of her aides were giving her. At 8 pm, she managed to raise Bush on the phone; Bush was still on his "working vacation." "Mr. President," she said, "we need your help. We need everything you've got." Bush was reassuring, but vague on specifics. Thomas writes, "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." In other words, instead of taking the situation seriously and staying up to demand that immediate action be taken, Bush crawled off to bed and let the situation develop without federal intervention.
- Thomas writes, "Bush was told at 5 am Pacific Coast time [Tuesday morning] 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.'" While Bush played guitar, riots were breaking out in New Orleans and the water continued to rise.
- The evacuation plan for New Orleans was sketchy at best, and heavily dependent on federal assistance. The best plan Nagin could come up with for the tens of thousands of residents who had no transportation of their own was to herd them into the Superdome, where he had been promised FEMA would send a fleet of buses to transport the refugees to safety. Thomas writes, "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."
- Wednesday morning, a frustrated Blanco called the White House herself. Her frustration mounted when, for hours, she was put on hold and transferred around from one functionary to another. She finally got hold of Fran Townsend, Bush's homeland security advisor, who proved sympathetic but unhelpful. Hours later, the irate Blanco called back and insisted on speaking with Bush directly. Eventually the president took the phone call, and Blanco asked for 40,000 troops, "whatever you have." She later says she pulled the 40,000 figure "out of the sky."
- The military was already moving troops, supplies, and equipment to the stricken region, but "ironically, the scale of the effort slowed it," observes Thomas. While TV crews had little difficulty moving in and out of the strike zones in their single RVs, the military convoys were forced by flooded streets and damaged bridges to move more slowly.
- "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."
- FEMA, the one agency capable of immediate and effective intervention, was, in Thomas's words, "dysfunctional." But while FEMA, under the leadership of GOP cronies like Michael Brown, floundered and did nothing positive -- in fact, sometimes interfering in other rescue efforts -- Bush was hearing the usual happy talk about what a good job was being done. "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."
- The lid finally blew off aboard Air Force One on Friday. As the presidential luxury jet sat on the tarmac of the New Orleans airport, both Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin, along with other state and local officials, let Bush have it.
- Thomas reports, "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.' 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.'" Nagin suggested putting the Pentagon's on-scene commander, Lieutenant General Russel Honore, in charge. Bush and Blanco agreed to do so, but Blanco, angered by the federal authorities' week-long indifference and interference, continued to refuse to put Louisiana National Guard troops under federal control. Bush also sent DHS chief Chertoff to Louisiana to coordinate FEMA's efforts, and FEMA chief Michael Brown was sent packing back to Washington.
- Thomas concludes, "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.' 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."
Of course, the biggest problem with Newsweek's otherwise exceptional article is the assumption that senior administration officials wanted to do a better job than what was done. As Professor Immanuel Wallerstine wrote, "Ten days after the crisis began, the government seemed to get its act together somewhat, but ten days is a long time. This long delay was however not accidental. It is the direct result of how the Bush regime operates -- poor judgment and active indifference to anything that isn't high on their list of priorities. They missed the boat at many different points in the almost five years before Katrina. After Sept. 11, they promised to make sure that the government would be prepared for any emergency. This was in fact the whole point of establishing the Dept. of Homeland Security. Obviously, they did not do it. They proved as unprepared for Katrina as they were for 9/11. Just last year, they urged Congress to reduce the amount of money that could have been used by the US Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levees that were in bad shape. So the Corps of Engineers had to postpone the work. ...[W]hy wasn't the government on the alert? Incompetence and indifference because preventing hurricane damage to New Orleans (and indeed the rest of the Gulf Coast) was not on the high priority list of an administration which wants to fight a war in Iraq, persuade Congress to allow it to drill for oil in Alaska, and repeal the estate tax so that the 2% wealthiest people in the United States can be relieved of this burden."