Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A long-time reader writes in with a <$NoAd$>good suggestion ...

Josh: Per your request for reader input on FEMA's place in current national disaster policy: I have no expertise in this area. My suggestion would be to ask someone who does, namely James Lee Witt himself. His company's website is here: http://www.wittassociates.com/1205.xml

Wesley Clark, incidentally, is his Vice Chairman.

I'm not a Clinton admirer as you know, but I remember what the pre-Witt FEMA was like. In terms of the difference he made to his agency, Witt was Clinton's best hire. If the changes he instituted didn't get institutionalized (for whatever reason) when the Bush people came in that's too bad, but you can't overrate the importance of having a first rate person running an agency like that. They are not easy to find.

Not a bad idea.

A great friend of mine in graduate school was Ari Kelman. And while I was poring over the details of English settlers and Indians in 17th century New England, he was busy writing an environmental history of New Orleans. So I guess he wins the relevant knowledge prize. But then I was always a long shot.

He's got an article up tonight at Slate about just why that city was built below sea level.

I assume smart producers will be ringing his phone off the hook in coming days.

Here's a question, and not a rhetorical one.

This column in yesterday's Post says that FEMA is being "systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security." Later it says: "This year it was announced that FEMA is to 'officially' lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission."

It's a revealing piece. So, by all means, read the whole thing. Also see this much-linked article in Editor & Publisher by Will Bunch, which explores this and related issues.

But back to my question, which is, how was the chain of command for dealing with natural disasters and the operational ability of FEMA different last week than it was exactly four years ago (not an arbitrary number, since 9/11 led to many of the institutional changes in question) or eight years ago? There's no magic of course in those four capital letters. If FEMA and its responsibilities are being replaced by something else, then let's put that in the mix too. Nor should we forget that at least the concept, if not the execution, of consolidating various agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security had broad bipartisan support.

I'm not looking for rants. I'd like to get information that is as concrete and specific as possible. If you've seen an article that lays it out well, let me know. If you have expertise in this issue, I'd very much like to hear from you.

I've set up a thread here to discuss this. But if you have specific information I'd greatly appreciate if you can contact me directly as well.

Most all our attention is rightly, understandably focused on this disaster unfolding along the Gulf Coast. But take a moment to learn about this stampede on a bridge over the Tigris river today in which up to 1000 people died. Shi'a pilgrims were crossing the bridge when a fast-spreading rumor that a suicide bomber was about to detonate himself in the crowd led to panic and a rush to escape.

Late Update: A late report puts the number at a staggring 965 dead.

I'm sorry. I know we're supposed to be observing an accountability free moment for the president. But there are just too many examples out there of the ways in which his policies have contributed to and accentuated this crisis: systematic cuts in levee and pump construction around New Orleans (second article here), phasing out FEMA and the apparently the whole concept of national coordination of the response to natural disasters. That's a great idea, isn't it? Similar failings are discussed by Bruce W. Jentleson and Juliette Kayyem at TPMCafe. And, of course, example after example of cronies running critical agencies. Anyone want to give a buzz to Joe Allbaugh over at New Bridge Strategies?

The scene of any natural disaster, especially one of such grave magnitude, will invariably be chaotic. Much won't go according to plan. But a lot of people seem to have been caught unprepared in this mess, a lot of preparedness agencies appear to have missed a few beats in getting on top of it.

Yes, let's save everyone and everything we can. People on the scene and in the surrounding region are pulling together in amazing ways. But no more letting this man's failures become his own argument against accountability. It's always been a live-for-today presidency.

Like you I've been watching the escalating scale of the destruction down along the Gulf Coast. Rather than giving my own reactions or not-particularly-well-informed views of what's happening, I've put together a series of emails I've received over the last forty-eight hours from TPM Readers in the path of the storm. I've posted them here at TPMCafe.

No doubt, you remember that a couple weeks back The Washington Post published a story on Jack Abramoff which included unrebutted claims from DeLay surrogates that the Majority Leader had cut all ties to Abramoff way back in early February 2001, just after one of Abramoff's erstwhile business associates, Gus Boulis, was murdered in a gangland hit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

As the Post related it ...

Earlier this year, DeLay told a group of conservative supporters at a private meeting that sometime shortly after SunCruz Casinos founder Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis was gunned down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 6, 2001, he confronted Abramoff over his SunCruz involvement, according to people in attendance.

"Immediately, he had Abramoff called in and told him, 'I want no more dealings with you,' " said conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich, a longtime DeLay friend, recounting a speech DeLay gave to a conservative group earlier this year. "I think he felt blindsided by Abramoff" over the SunCruz affair, Weyrich said.

To the best of my knowledge, the Post has yet to follow up on or rebut this palpably ludicrous claim. So I've continued to keep an eye out for examples which show just how clearly untrue the claims are.

And I think I have another.

Fully two years after the alleged DeLay-Abramoff smackdown, that is, in early February 2003, the DeLays (Tom and Christine) and the Abramoffs (Jack and Pam) joined Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin and his wife Irene for a private dinner in the Washington area. Apparently, everyone really hit it off. And, needless to say, the gathering was arranged by Jack Abramoff.

Now, before going any further, let's stipulate that little schmooze-fests like these happen all the time in Washington. And I have no reason to believe that anything untoward was discussed or transacted. My understanding is that conversation turned on the normal mix of politics and fundraising -- in this case, apparently, fundraising for one of DeLay's charities. My only reason for noting it is to demonstrate (which I think it does pretty handily) the close professional and personal relationship the DeLays continued to have with Abramoff at least until early 2003.

Someday maybe even the Post will revisit this part of the story.

When asked about details of the meeting, Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum declined comment. Calls to DeLay's press office were not returned.

Amazing. This is a newsflash from a local TV station in New Orleans, about Jefferson parish (emphasis in the original): "Jeff Parish President. Residents will probably be allowed back in town in a week, with identification only, but only to get essentials and clothing. You will then be asked to leave and not come back for one month."

Late Update: Here, from the Times-Picayune, is a piece with much more detail on the recovery plan for Jefferson parish.

"Mideast analyst Kenneth Pollack is one of two U.S. government officials referenced in the indictment against two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee" says JTA.

The reference he is to the two unnamed US government officials who were referenced in the AIPAC/Larry Franklin indictments that came down early this month. Pollack says he thinks he was "USG0-1".

I'm a bit surprised this hasn't gotten more play.