A Level Gaze

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Friday, September 16, 2005
Brown Makes His Stand, Blames White House

The consensus about the Michael Brown interview story in today's NYT seems to be that he largely approved of the federal government's response to the disaster and largely laid the blame at the feet of the local governments. I have no idea where this idea comes from.

Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administrationan, an agency whose very existence is predicated on the idea that state and local governments can't handle everything. He wasn't the Director of the Federal Bitch the States Out for Not Doing Their Damn Jobs Administration.

Brown is not even at the surface of reproach, much less above it. Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco each failed in deeply troubling ways. However, what comes through most strongly from the interview is the all too realistic depiction of a federal response that, well, wasn't.

FEMA has only 2,600 employees; its mission is planning and coordination. It has no stockpiles of emergency supplies, no troops, no fleets of buses, helicopters, or ships. It exists to augment the effectiveness of local, state, and especially federal resources by planning ahead and helping them to work together efficiently.

I don’t think Brown was prepared to handle a major disaster on his own, because he wasn’t supposed to. The problem came from the fact that he didn’t know he was on his own. His bosses were working on the situation in their own way, and he wasn’t in the loop.

Long before he resigned in disgrace, he had already been hung out to dry.

One more time, from the September 4th Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday [August 26], the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.

Such a takeover, especially in advance of any actual disaster (Katrina didn't hit until the morning of the 29th), would have been completely unprecedented. Keep this in mind, it's important. Now, on to today's yesterday's interview:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 - Hours after Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans on Aug. 29, as the scale of the catastrophe became clear, Michael D. Brown recalls, he placed frantic calls to his boss, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, and to the office of the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.

Mr. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he told the officials in Washington that the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and her staff were proving incapable of organizing a coherent state effort and that his field officers in the city were reporting an "out of control" situation.

"I am having a horrible time," Mr. Brown said he told Mr. Chertoff and a White House official - either Mr. Card or his deputy, Joe Hagin - in a status report that evening. "I can't get a unified command established."

Note that the "scale of the catastrophe" was only becoming clear to Brown on Monday the 29th. This was two-and-a-half days after the White House had leaned on Gov. Blanco to give up control of her state. Now, either the Bush Administration knew Katrina had catastrophic potential for Louisiana, or saw the storm as an opportunity for a power grab for its own reasons. Either way, Katrina was being taken very seriously at the highest levels of government.

Somehow, Brown didn't know this. From all appearances, he was watching the hurricane's progress and hoping for the best.

By the time of that call, he added, "I was beginning to realize things were going to hell in a handbasket" in Louisiana. A day later, Mr. Brown said, he asked the White House to take over the response effort.

Regardless of the original intentions, the Bushies must have by then made preparations--moved troops and supplies into position, at least--for the takeover. That is, unless they had planned to take the reins in Louisiana long distance from Washington. But Brown didn't know.

But Mr. Brown's account, in which he described making "a blur of calls" all week to Mr. Chertoff, Mr. Card and Mr. Hagin, suggested that Mr. Bush, or at least his top aides, were informed early and repeatedly by the top federal official at the scene that state and local authorities were overwhelmed and that the overall response was going badly.

A senior administration official said Wednesday night that White House officials recalled the conversations with Mr. Brown but did not believe they had the urgency or desperation he described in the interview.

Brown may or may not have cared about New Orleans or its people, but he certainly thought what happened to them was his responsibility. He knew what would happen to him as FEMA director if a federal emergency was mismanaged on his watch. He had to be desperate. And the White House was letting him, and New Orleans, twist in the wind.

Mr. Brown was removed by Mr. Chertoff last week from directing the relief effort. A 50-year-old lawyer and Republican activist who joined FEMA as general counsel in 2001, Mr. Brown said he had been hobbled by limitations on the power of the agency to command resources.

With only 2,600 employees nationwide, he said, FEMA must rely on state workers, the National Guard, private contractors and other federal agencies to supply manpower and equipment.

He said his biggest mistake was in waiting until the end of the day on Aug. 30 to ask the White House explicitly to take over the response from FEMA and state officials.

As FEMA director, Brown didn't have much authority unless and until it was given to him by Chertoff or the president, and that didn't happen until late on Tuesday, a day and a half after Katrina hit the city. Again, the Bushies had been prepared to take over New Orleans, lock, stock, and barrel more than three days earlier, but they hadn't given Brown anything to work with. Meanwhile, people were dying.

To add insult to tragedy, Bush's September 27 state of emergency declaration had already provided the legal go-ahead for full mobilization of all relevant federal resources. Brown (and possibly Chertoff) didn't know.

In Washington, Mr. Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, said there had been no delay in the federal response. "We pushed absolutely everything we could," Mr. Knocke said, "every employee, every asset, every effort, to save and sustain lives."

Uh, no.

By Saturday afternoon, many residents were leaving. But as the hurricane approached early on Sunday, Mr. Brown said he grew so frustrated with the failure of local authorities to make the evacuation mandatory that he asked Mr. Bush for help.

"Would you please call the mayor and tell him to ask people to evacuate?" Mr. Brown said he asked Mr. Bush in a phone call.

"Mike, you want me to call the mayor?" the president responded in surprise, Mr. Brown said.

Bush's people had been trying to strong-arm the governor into giving up authority over her state, and he was surprised he was being asked to call the mayor? Not that he should lean on him or anything.

On Monday night, Mr. Brown said, he reported his growing worries to Mr. Chertoff and the White House. He said he did not ask for federal active-duty troops to be deployed because he assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could. Instead, he said, he repeated a dozen times, "I cannot get a unified command established."

It looks like when the hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, Brown didn't have to call up the troops, line up the supplies, or get the money flowing, because that had already been done for him. That's why he "assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could." He'd been through this drill before, and that's how it worked. But not this time.

At the same time, the Superdome was degenerating into "gunfire and anarchy," and on Tuesday the FEMA staff and medical team in New Orleans called to say they were leaving for their own safety.

That night [August 30], Mr. Brown said, he called Mr. Chertoff and the White House again in desperation. "Guys, this is bigger than what we can handle," he told them, he said. "This is bigger than what FEMA can do. I am asking for help."

"Maybe I should have screamed 12 hours earlier," Mr. Brown said in the interview. "But that is hindsight. We were still trying to make things work."

How he expected to handle this kind of situation without the kind of serious federal help it was the purpose of his agency to provide is beyond me.

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Brown said, he learned that [US Army Lt. Gen. Russel] Honoré was on his way. While the general did not have responsibility for the entire relief effort and the Guard, his commanding manner helped mobilize the state's efforts.

"Honoré shows up and he and I have a phone conversation," Mr. Brown said. "He gets the message, and, boom, it starts happening."

Just like that, the army shows up and it starts happening. The green light is given, the resources are put into action, and the situation starts to get under control. Boom.

The Bushies let Brown face the fury of Katrina all on his own. That's what I got out of the interview, and I believe it's what he was trying to get across. He put it rather subtly early on in the interview: "I truly believed the White House was not at fault here." I added emphasis there; I wonder if he did.

With a lot of help from the TPM Hurricane Katrina Timeline. Credit where it's due.

Thursday, September 15, 2005
Can Bush's Ass Cash That Check?

From the speech:
Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well.

That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.
You know, Dubya, that applies just the same to poor blacks all over the country. It's that moral absolutism you are so fond of. America did wrong by just about all African-Americans. Do you mean to make things right for all of them? Are you going to undertake a historical national initiative to wipe out our shameful national legacy of racism? Are you going to come out in favor of true educational equality, quality medical care, meaningful affirmative action, and vigorous anti-discrimination enforcement?

That's a big check you wrote tonight, Mr. President. I look forward to seeing what happens at the bank when you hand it to the teller.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Chertoff's Turn in the Grinder

Josh has a big, big post up which looks at at a very important Knight-Ridder article entitled "Chertoff delayed federal response, memo shows."

Although the article doesn't absolve Michael Brown from all culpability for FEMA's failures, it does distribute some of the blame higher up the agency food chain by pointing out that Brown had been waiting on his boss to give him full authority to act until 36 hours after the storm hit.

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'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.
Knight-Ridder's reporters did some fine reporting on this story, but got a significant piece of it wrong. Although Chertoff as DHS secretary had the power to fully mobilize federal disaster response resources, that power also resided with the president. From Page 7 of the National Response Plan (PDF, 2mb):

For Incidents of National Significance that are Presidentially declared disasters or emergencies, Federal support to States is delivered in accordance with relevant provisions of the Stafford Act (see Appendix 3, Authorities and References). (Note that while all Presidentially declared disasters and emergencies under the Stafford Act are considered Incidents of National Significance, not all Incidents of National Significance necessarily result in disaster or emergency declarations under the Stafford Act.) (emphasis added)
Bush declared a State of Emergency in Louisiana on August 26 and in Mississippi a day later, meaning that from that point forward, all FEMA resources could have been put into action.

But not by Brown. According to the Knight-Ridder piece, Chertoff's redundant declaration of an Incident of National Significance on August 30 also "designated [Brown] as the 'principal federal official' in charge of the storm." Until that point, he himself had had that role. However, as indicated by the fact that he felt the need to declare Katrina a Incident of National Significance, he wasn't aware of the powers and responsibilities he had. He'd had the power to act for four days and did nothing.

He didn't even know that he was supposed to take the initiative. From the K-R article:

That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.

"As you know, the President has established the `White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.' He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to Hurricane Katrina," Chertoff said in the memo to the secretaries of defense, health and human services and other key federal agencies.


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.
It appears Bush's handlers were looking to have him take credit for the federal response by having it credited to the "White House Task Force" rather than DHS or FEMA. This would make sense in light of Bush's reported determination not to repeat his father's failure to take Hurricane Andrew seriously enough in 1992. By taking ownership of the relief efforts he could turn the disaster to his benefit. It might have worked had he moved a lot more quickly.

Whether Chertoff's failure to put the federal disaster response machinery in operation was due to deference to Bush, his own ignorance, or a combination of both, it is nonetheless a failure of monumental proportions.

On a side note, the K-R article also features DHS spokesman Russ Knocke attempting to defend the federal relief efforts.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, didn't dispute that the National Response Plan put Chertoff in charge in federal response to a catastrophe. But he disputed that the bureaucracy got in the way of launching the federal response.

"There was a tremendous sense of urgency," Knocke said. "We were mobilizing the greatest response to a disaster in the nation's history."

Knocke noted that members of the Coast Guard were already in New Orleans performing rescues and FEMA personnel and supplies had been deployed to the region.
Although this reflects very well on the CG, it's meaningless in terms of DHS/FEMA, because the very nature of the CG means it doesn't have to wait for authorizations before acting. There's no time for bureaucracy when a ship is in distress; the CG just goes out and tries to rescue people. Hiding behind these brave and tireless people is yet another craven and dishonest dodge on the part of administration officials.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Brown’s Future

What’s next for newly-ex FEMA head Michael Brown? His future can’t be looking too rosy at the moment, and it doesn’t look like he has many options.

He was nominally in charge of the biggest governmental failure since the Bay of Pigs. He was unqualified to hold his position, and he lied on his resume.

I’d bet his agency’s success in handling the 2004 hurricanes in Florida was the result of quick action on the part of political handlers rather than anything Brown himself did. Even if he had been exemplary, the Katrina failures have rendered the rest of his tenure at FEMA meaningless.

Professionally, there really isn’t anything else to the man. Even a hiring manager at McDonald's might have trouble figuring out what to do with a 'horse lawyer.'

If he’s bravely taking the fall for Katrina on behalf of the rest of the executive branch, it won't exactly be easy to reward him for it. He will never be given another government job, and I don’t know that the VRWC's think tanks or foundations have any holes deep enough to bury him in. Any job he gets above the level of janitor is going to look like some kind of quid pro quo for keeping his mouth shut.

If Brown is ever going to get out of this hole, he’s going to need to find some way to even partially rehabilitate his reputation. But how?

Blaming the severity of the storm has already blown up in his face. In all too many cases, FEMA had the ability to help but did nothing or actively blocked others from helping. Blaming the Democrats for his problems won’t wash. If it had been possible to lay this thing at the door of local officials, Brown wouldn’t have been out of a job in the first place.

He could have a come-to-Jesus moment in which he sees the error of his ways and becomes a motivational speaker for those afraid of making catastrophic errors. Assuming neither he nor his audience has any self-respect, that is.

The simplest way out might be to offload some of the blame onto other administration officials. He could say the wrangling over jurisdiction that took place higher up the chain of command caused his superiors to hold off on acting. He could say that too much attention to the political angle of the situation delayed necessary authorizations. He could say that poor communication outside of FEMA hampered coordination of resources. He could say that he had expected a comparable level of support from the administration to that which he received in 2004 in Florida, but did not anticipate how much effect the fate of a critical swing state (governed by the president’s brother) had during an election year.

He could even write a book about it.

Other possibilities:

He could move to a remote cabin in the mountains and spend the rest of his days muttering incoherently to himself.

Some of Bush’s pals could give him a big bunch of money to shut his mouth, get lost, and stay lost.

He could turn up dead.

Sunday, September 11, 2005
Examples to the Contrary

I called bullshit on the "the administration's senior domestic security officials" who claimed that their disaster plans "failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated."

From 2002's Most Senior Administration Domestic Security Official, (and Bush 2000 presidential campaign director) Joe Allbaugh:

Even so, the prospect of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was a FEMA priority. Numerous drills and studies had been undertaken to prepare a response. In 2002, Joe M. Allbaugh, then the FEMA director, said: "Catastrophic disasters are best defined in that they totally outstrip local and state resources, which is why the federal government needs to play a role. There are a half-dozen or so contingencies around the nation that cause me great concern, and one of them is right there in your backyard."


Katrina Changed Everything

If there is any one indicator of the impact Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath has had upon America's national discourse, it is the front page of the print edition of today's New York Times.

Above the fold, there are three stories and a large picture. Two of them have nothing to do with the terrorist attacks that took place here four years ago today. The third references them once, in relation to the federal government's failure to handle Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. There are no mentions in the three articles below the fold. Out of the page's 10 teasers, only three of them mention the topic, and one of them is primarily concerned with the hurricane.

The events of 9/11/01 shocked the nation and the world. Two of the most important civil buildings in the world were destroyed. A huge explosion tore through the heart of the world's most powerful military. The attacks spawned two wars, and a radical reorganization of America's foreign and domestic policies. Elections turned on which candidates voters believed would protect the nation better from such attacks in the future.

A mere four years later, the event's anniversary merits only footnotes on the front page of the nation's newspaper of record. Katrina changed everything.

Saturday, September 10, 2005
Shorter John Tierney:

In the wake of the devastating human tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina, I can't understand why the Democrats would propose an independent investigation that can't be guaranteed to cover their asses politically. If they would just let the Republicans control everything, no unpleasant truths would be exposed, and everyone could go home happy.

Friday, September 09, 2005
Power Grab Update

From the look of the NYT this morning, it looks as though Mick Arran might have been on to something. As is often the case, the juicy bits are buried between the lines, so a little dissection is in order.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor.

This is a red herring, a non-starter. Why would Bush's seizing control over the hurricane area "speed the arrival" of troops? Blanco had already asked him to send military help. I think that formulation may have been a telling slip of the tongue.

The debate began after officials realized that Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the national disaster response plans created after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated.

As the Times makes abundantly clear, it seems that taking over from local authorities was the one thing the administration unambiguously was prepared for. Why would they have spent so much time and effort on it if they had assumed local authorities would have been adequate to the task? How much do you want to bet this is a complete fabrication and that examples to the contrary will be found spread out over dozens of disaster-recovery documents over the next week or two?

As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis.

Blanco had been begging them to send help, as much as they could. To help her people. As it wasn't necessary for Bush to completely take over the situation in order for aid to be delivered, why would she be "wrangling" with the feds over power issues? Answer: because they were insisting on a takeover. Blanco wasn't the one bringing it up.

To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president in times of unrest to command active-duty forces into the states to perform law enforcement duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control, as Bush administration officials believe would have been required to deploy active-duty combat forces before law and order had been re-established. (emphasis added)

Again, as I'll get into in a bit more detail below, Bush's seizing control wasn't necessary for him to use the active-duty military to deliver aid. Also, the whole "felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control" is fishier than bouillabaisse. I'm guessing they had already been directly pressuring her to do so, and did not want to admit to so egregious a power grab. Finally, we see again the centrality of the Insurrection Act, which, in the absence of an actual, uh, insurrection, was the only means whereby the feds could have sidestepped local control. The central issue in New Orleans wasn't that law and order had broken down--of course it had; there was a catastrophic flood--it was the humanitarian nightmare of hundreds of thousands of people trapped without water, food, or medical facilities.

The fact that talk of martial law and the Insurrection Act caused available help to be withheld from the dispossessed and stranded is iteslf criminal, but also indicative of an overriding motive that had nothing to do with the welfare of these people.

While combat troops can conduct relief missions without the legal authority of the Insurrection Act, Pentagon and military officials say that no active-duty forces could have been sent into the chaos of New Orleans on Wednesday or Thursday without confronting law-and-order challenges.

This is bullshit, pure and simple. Do they mean to say that the biggest, baddest-assed force in the world can't be sent outside of martial law jurisdictions for relief purposes unless everyone there promises to be perfectly behaved? Aren't disaster areas, the site of most relief operations, themselves challenged in terms of law and order? Don't fights routinely break out in relief lines? That's assault, which is a law-and-order challenge. Give me a break.

But just as important to the administration were worries about the message that would have been sent by a president ousting a Southern governor of another party from command of her National Guard, according to administration, Pentagon and Justice Department officials.

Bullshit again. They didn't care about how it would have looked. In an emergency the size and scale of Katrina, the public would have approved of anything they thought would help. They didn't do it because it would have been blatantly illegal, and would have scared the crap out of every state politician in the country. Once it became clear there wasn't evidence of an armed revolution in the streets of New Orleans, they needed Blanco's permission for a takeover.

Officials in Louisiana agree that the governor would not have given up control over National Guard troops in her state as would have been required to send large numbers of active-duty soldiers into the area. But they also say they were desperate and would have welcomed assistance by active-duty soldiers. (emphasis added)

Is this BS, too? Where does it say Bush has to take control over the National Guard troops in order to send active-duty soldiers? Exactly how many troops would constitute a "large number"? How many could he have sent without seizing control?

By Wednesday, she had asked for 40,000 soldiers.

In the discussions in Washington, also at issue was whether active-duty troops could respond faster and in larger numbers than the Guard.

By last Wednesday, Pentagon officials said even the 82nd Airborne, which has a brigade on standby to move out within 18 hours, could not arrive any faster than 7,000 National Guard troops, which are specially trained and equipped for civilian law enforcement duties.

In the end, the flow of thousands of National Guard soldiers, especially military police, was accelerated from other states.

Why were they discussing who could get where faster on Wednesday? The enormity of the human tragedy that engulfed New Orleans was on every newspaper and television screen in the country. They should have sent everything they could find, or at least up to the 40,000 requested by Blanco. This shouldn't have required reflection, or legal niceties. People were in trouble, and it was the administration's duty to help. And of course the active-duty forces could have gotten there faster. They're "active" and "on duty." So they can get places fast.

In any case, they would have arrived a hell of a lot faster if they had been ordered to go.

But one senior Army officer expressed puzzlement that active-duty troops were not summoned sooner, saying 82nd Airborne troops were ready to move out from Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sunday, the day before the hurricane hit.

The call never came, administration officials said, in part because military officials believed Guard troops would get to the stricken region faster and because administration civilians worried that there could be political fallout if federal troops were forced to shoot looters.

So, "administration civilians" are admitting they didn't send available help to New Orleans because they were worried about "political fallout." Just like that. People suffered and died so the Bush administration could avoid "political fallout," and the Bush administration appears not to be shy about admitting it.

And why, exactly, would they have had to shoot looters? Aren't there priorities in life-and-death situations? Perhaps they could have worried first about feeding and rescuing people to save their lives, and then taken care of the breaking and entering. I don't know where it's written that looters have to be shot, and I don't know of many small bands of looters that would stand up against organized military force, but that's evidently how the thinking went in the Bush administration.

I don't know what's more inhuman: that they feel that people's lives are expendable in the name of politics, or that they were focused on the potential for looting over their responsibility to protect their own citizens. Perhaps the latter can be attributed to the time spent laying the groundwork for a takeover.

Aides to Ms. Blanco said she was prepared to accept the deployment of active-duty military officials in her state. But she and other state officials balked at giving up control of the Guard as Justice Department officials said would have been required by the Insurrection Act if those combat troops were to be sent in before order was restored.

More reverse-causality crap. Short of a full-on rebellion, whether the Act was invoked was Blanco's decision; it couldn't be used to force her to do anything. It could, however, have been involved as the price of a quid pro quo that got desperately needed aid to the huddled masses of New Orleans.

In a separate discussion last weekend, the governor also rejected a more modest proposal for a hybrid command structure in which both the Guard and active-duty troops would be under the command of an active-duty, three-star general - but only after he had been sworn into the Louisiana National Guard.

After any justification of invoking the Insurrection Act had passed, they were still trying to take over. As in so many other instances, when one rationale fails, the Bushies try another. A federal takeover was in no way necessary or legally mandated; they wanted it.

The Pentagon is reviewing events from the time Hurricane Katrina reached full strength and bore down on New Orleans and five days later when Mr. Bush ordered 7,200 active-duty soldiers and marines to the scene.

So it turns out they could send active-duty troops down to help? Even without taking over completely? Or does 7,200 fall short of the "large number" that would require the Act to be invoked? Or have they finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, to do the right thing by the fear of more political fallout?

The issue of federalizing the response was one of several legal issues considered in a flurry of meetings at the Justice Department, the White House and other agencies, administration officials said.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Justice Department lawyers to interpret the federal law creatively to help local authorities, those officials said. For example, federal prosecutors prepared to expand their enforcement of some criminal statutes like anti-carjacking laws that can be prosecuted by either state or federal authorities.

On the issue of whether the military could be deployed without the invitation of state officials, the Office of Legal Counsel, the unit within the Justice Department that provides legal advice to federal agencies, concluded that the federal government had authority to move in even over the objection of local officials.

Why were they discussing whether a military deployment could take place without a state invitation? They had already been invited. It was a non-issue, unless, perhaps as part of a deliberate strategy to confuse the issue, you're conflating "military rescue mission" with "complete federal takeover of a disaster area."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Why FEMA Dithered: Power Grab?

This Mick Arran article over at Dispatches From the Trenches is an absolute must read. I don't know if it's 100% true or not, but it's the shortest path to an explanation I've seen for why FEMA sat on its hands and, in some cases, actively blocked, efforts to save the citizens of New Orleans.

According to the Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.

The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request. "Quite frankly, if they'd been able to pull off taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals," said the source, who does not have the authority to speak publicly.

A senior administration official said that Bush has clear legal authority to federalize National Guard units to quell civil disturbances under the Insurrection Act and will continue to try to unify the chains of command that are split among the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor.

Why might taking over be important enough to them that they'd let people die to do it? Arran explains:

1. Bush’s concern wasn’t centered on helping the starving and homeless refugees in New Orleans but on protecting private property in the suburbs from potential ‘looters’. The refugees were poor and black and the conservative view of them is that they’re all dangerous ‘rabble’—lazy, shiftless thieves; a mob.

2. Because his view is that the poor and black are little more than a mob, he was expecting an insurrection and wanted the authority to put it down by force.

3. Declaring martial law would give the Federal government total control of the city: the Army would be brought in to police it and—perhaps most important to this corporate president—the Federal government would have charge of all the rebuilding contracts, giving it $$$billions$$$ to hand out to its corporate sponsors.

4. There’s also the little matter of taking decisions about how and what to rebuild out of the hands of the people of New Orleans and putting them into the hands of people who see New Orleans as ‘Sin City’, effectively ensuring that New Orleans would never again be the Big Easy.

For my own part, I'd also add that it would give the feds the ability to limit press access to the city and classify information they didn't want out in the open, possibly on the grounds that it would reveal too much of our DHS infrastructure.

It makes sense of the Bush administration's repeated insistence lie that Blanco hadn't declared a state of emergency until Wednesday--it would give them ammunitition to take over for Blanco by blaming her for their own inaction.

Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.

"The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana."

Finally, it provides a rationale for why the feds were pushing the 'armed looter' story so hard: it wasn't to blame the locals for what had happened to themselves; it was meant to be used to justify the invocation of the Insurrection Act and as a stick to beat Blanco into giving up control over the city because she couldn't secure it.

Here's how the Insurrection Act works:

Quelling Civil Disturbances: The Insurrection Act (10 U.S.C. § 331 et seq.)

State and local governments have primary responsibility for quelling rebellions (32 C.F.R. § 215.4(a).

The President may use the military (including the Federalized National Guard) to quell (1) civil disturbances in a State (upon the Governor's request), (2) rebellions that make it difficult to enforce Federal law, or (3) any insurrection that impedes a State's ability to protect citizens' constitutional rights and that State is unable to unwilling to protect these rights.

Before committing U.S. troops, the President must issue a proclamation for rebellious citizens to disperse, cease, and desist.

It doesn't take much of a stretch to see the feds' actions and statements as specifically tailored to invoke the Act. It's pretty damned obvious that if relief workers and the NG had been allowed into the city in a timely manner, order could have easily been restored without a complete federal takeover of the city.

As in Iraq, when the locals didn't follow the script and greet us with candy and flowers and coronate Ahmad Chalabi, there was no Plan B for New Orleans. DHS and FEMA didn't have any contingency worked out for the possibility that full martial law would not be imposed that would tell them to open the aid spigots. And there wasn't a way to quickly disseminate the new orders that wouldn't reveal that administration had dragged its feet. This further delayed relief, compounding the tragedy immensely.

I'd imagine there were a lot of people in the DHS/FEMA carrying out these bizarre orders who were not under the Bush political machine umbrella, and who are scratching their heads awfully hard about it. Perhaps some of them will come forward and tell the nation in the coming days and weeks exactly what went on that prevented them from saving the lives of their fellow citizens.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Tierney's Double Standard

A lot of American conservatives cry for blood when a crime is committed. They want to deter potential criminals, and to simply punish the wrongdoers for what they've done.

I don't know whether the lack of federal response to Katrina meets the legal definition of a crime. I believe it does, but that will in time be determined by the relevant authorities. At the very least, however, it amounted to grave incompetence that directly contributed to the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people.

John Tierney doesn't seem to think the standard conservative reasoning should apply to a (republican) president and his administration:

Mr. Bush made a lot of mistakes last week, but most of his critics are making an even bigger one now by obsessing about what he said and did.

If your mother died because the nurse whose job it was to administer her medication failed to do so, you'd want to know why. You'd want her removed from her post so she wouldn't put any other patients at risk. You could very understandably wish to see her punished for her negligence. You could find yourself obsessing about the nurse, and no one would think it inappropriate or unnecessary.

Why is it that conservative principles never seem to apply to conservative politicians?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

When the stories of the Katrina survivors are more widely circulated, if some really seriously big heads don't roll (and aren't kicked into smithereens), there will be riots across America. If the Rodney King verdict was jaywalking; the lack of response to Katrina is mass murder.

And lest anyone get the impression that there's a simple response to this situation, throwing Chertoff and Brown under the bus won't be nearly enough.

Read this for just a few of hundreds of counts that belong in the indictment.

Friday, September 02, 2005
Putting "Race and Class" in Context

I keep hearing various folks in the post-Katrina media barrage talking about "race and class," and how they have influenced who has borne the brunt of this disaster.

On one hand, I'm cheered that, at long last, the gatekeepers of our public discourse have seen fit to address the issue of poverty. The same bunch who couldn't pause for a moment's breath in their last few weeks of their hideously absurd coverage of rich, white, missing Natalee Holloway (during a war, no less) are actually talking about the tragedy of poverty and the inhumanity of the stark inequality that so often lies beneath the visible surface of this "richest country in the world."

On the other hand, I want to tell them to shut the fuck up.

It's almost as if they're under some kind of compulsion to come to the wrong conclusions. Here's a story that writes itself--they merely need to stand next to it and let the facts osmose through them and it's the very soul of journalism--and they just can't let it happen without screwing it up.

What's wrong with the phrase "race and class"? Aren't the people trapped in the intensifying chaos and devastation of New Orleans, the people dying from lack of water and medical attention, aren't they largely poor and black?

The fact that Katrina has brought class out in the open is hugely beneficial and long overdue. There are a lot of things we can do to help raise up all Americans, that will help people now and in the future. Maybe now, forlorn as that hope might be, we as a country can start down the road of full citizenship and dignity for all of us.

But if you're going to talk about race, then you'd better be ready to talk about the legacy of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow, and the effects of generations of institutionalized and informal discrimination. You'd better be ready to talk about how the families of most blacks in this country started out with nothing and have since been blocked again and again from accumulating more by the pure blind hatred of (some) whites, very often with the acquiescence and active participation of government. You'd better be ready to talk about how racism is still a powerful, living force in America today.

You can't just wink at the issue. You can't use just the word "race" and assume everyone knows what you're talking about, because a lot of people don’t or won’t admit it. They'll just go and paint it with their own happy interpretations of history where there's nothing to regret, nothing to redress. They’ll conclude that these people were too lazy or stupid to get out of town, even after the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation. They’ll conclude that these people had the option to save money for emergencies but simply didn’t because they're irresponsible. (You know, because they're black.)

Poverty--class--is the only immediate reason these people they didn't have the means to leave the city following the "mandatory" evacuation, and it would have applied equally to anyone regardless of color. In this context--in the context of New Orleans, of Katrina, and of the horrifying suffering of the people left behind to suffer and die--in this context, race is only relevant if it explains why they were poor to begin with. If you mention race but do not talk explicitly about why it's connected to poverty, then people are going to come to their own conclusions as to why you brought it up, and some of them are going to come up with some very ugly answers.