Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Before getting to the meat of this post, let me stipulate that there are some cases where restoring critical infrastructure after a natural disaster is more important than restoring power to civilian neighborhoods, hospitals or even possibly saving lives.

That said, this seems awfully odd.

Today in the Post Dan Froomkin linked to an article in the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American.

The article begins ...

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina roared through South Mississippi knocking out electricity and communication systems, the White House ordered power restored to a pipeline that sends fuel to the Northeast.

That order - to restart two power substations in Collins that serve Colonial Pipeline Co. - delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems in the Pine Belt.

At the time, gasoline was in short supply across the country because of Katrina. Prices increased dramatically and lines formed at pumps across the South.

"I considered it a presidential directive to get those pipelines operating," said Jim Compton, general manager of the South Mississippi Electric Power Association - which distributes power that rural electric cooperatives sell to consumers and businesses.

Later Compton is quoted as saying: "We were led to believe a national emergency was created when the pipelines were shut down."

Then it gets a bit more interesting as we hear how Compton got the word ...

Dan Jordan, manager of Southern Pines Electric Power Association, said Vice President Dick Cheney's office called and left voice mails twice shortly after the storm struck, saying the Collins substations needed power restored immediately.

Jordan dated the first call the night of Aug. 30 and the second call the morning of Aug. 31. Southern Pines supplies electricity to the substation that powers the Colonial pipeline.

Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Mike Callahan said the U.S. Department of Energy called him on Aug. 31. Callahan said department officials said opening the fuel line was a national priority.

The article goes on to say that the linemen were working on restoring power to stations that supplied electricity to two rural hospitals. And the work required to get the pipeline up and running again threatened to knock out power to the only remaining hospital in the area on full power, Wesley Medical Center in Hattiesburg.

But just what was going on here? Cheney's office wouldn't talk. They referred the reporter to DHS. And they wouldn't talk either.

Is this how the national disaster response system works? Calls go out from the Vice President's office to local electric power utility operators giving national security directives on which power lines to get running first? Aren't things a bit more systematized than that?

This is also pretty early in the crisis, August 30th, the day after the storm hit. The Veep's office seemed really proactive about getting that pipeline flowing again. I trust it won't seem too persnickety to note a certain contrast between the urgency of this response and that to the rest of the crisis in the region?

The article says that "substations were crucial to Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline, which moves gasoline and diesel fuel from Texas, through Louisiana and Mississippi and up to the Northeast." Here's the map of the Colonial pipeline on the company's website. (It basically goes from Texas to New Jersey.) And the Colonial website says the company runs the "world's largest-volume refined petroleum products pipeline system." So with that and just a quick bit of research I've done this evening, the pipeline does seem like a fairly big deal.

But why haven't we heard more about this? At a minimum this seems like an important part of the story of what happened two weeks ago. But to the best of my knowledge it's gone wholly unremarked in the major national dailies.

Iffy and mysterious. According to ABCNews, while on a visit to flooded parts of New Orleans on September 2nd, Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA) had National Guard troops take him to his home on Marengo Street.

This was the Friday after Katrina struck, while troops were still actively involved in rescue operations. And, according to the article, the Guard truck Jefferson was transported in became stuck in the mud outside his house, leading the soldiers accompanying him to radio a call for help, which was answered by a Coast Guard helicopter in the midst of on-going rescue operations. The helicopter already had four evacuees on board and stayed for some 45 minutes before proceeding along to other rescues.

After entering the house, "Jefferson emerged with a laptop computer, three suitcases, and a box about the size of a small refrigerator, which the enlisted men loaded up into the truck."

Last month, you may remember, Jefferson's homes in the District and New Orleans were raided as part of a federal criminal investigation, the precise nature of which has yet to become clear.

Great catch by a new reader over at TPMCafe. A quote from Ben Stein -- one of several actually -- about the president and Katrina.

"George Bush... does not attack those who falsely accuse him of the most horrible acts and neglect. Instead, he doggedly goes on helping the least among us."

W.'s apparently a regular commando Jesus.

Check out the others.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. But it seems worth keeping an eye on.

As we discussed a couple days ago, FEMA hired Kenyon Worldwide Disaster Management to handle the recovery and disposition of the bodies of the victims of Katrina. But they were apparently getting ready to pack up and leave the state because FEMA -- having hired them a few days ago -- had failed to finalize their contract.

"From what I understand, Kenyon had some questions about the contract," FEMA spokesman David Passey.

And now Blanco has stepped in and signed a contract with Kenyon on behalf of the state of Louisiana so that the retrieval of the dead will be delayed no longer.

Every politician who's crossed paths with Katrina is on a tightrope. They'll either be wounded beyond repair or just possibly they'll have their careers made. So I don't discount the possibility that Blanco is grandstanding here or mischaracterizing the situation.

But what happened exactly? Did FEMA bring them in and then dawdle?

I posted a note earlier asking just who's in charge down in New Orleans. Yesterday we heard that CNN had won its brief court battle for reporting access in New Orleans. Today we see this report that reporters are again getting orders not to take photos or write stories.

But one of my right-leaning friends points out that a closer reading of the piece may be in order and, perhaps a more serious issue at stake.

The article contains this passage (emphasis added) ...

The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations.

This is a description rather than a direct quote. And the specifics of just what was said matter. But if the account is accurate, the contention seems to be that an US Army policy -- presumably intended for warzones -- trumps the decision of a US federal court on American soil. And I don't think you've got to be much of a wild-eyed civil libertarian to find that a tad problematic.

There are good reasons why we place such copious restrictions on the use of combat troops on American soil -- not because there's something wrong with the Army but because the training for war-fighting and policing civilians and/or disaster relief are quite different and the two don't easily mix.

Let's get to the bottom of this.

Seems CNN's court win didn't <$NoAd$> settle this one ...

Outside one house on Kentucky Street, a member of the Army 82nd Airborne Division summoned a reporter and photographer standing nearby and told them that if they took pictures or wrote a story about the body recovery process, he would take away their press credentials and kick them out of the state.

"No photos. No stories," said the man, wearing camouflage fatigues and a red beret.

On Saturday, after being challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.

But on Monday, in the Bywater district, that assurance wasn't being followed. The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations.

Who's in charge?

Let me follow up on a point I made in this post below.

Who is going to ask the president why he is taking responsibility? Every president, by definition, is responsible for what the federal government does on his watch, regardless of whether his actions specifically resulted in the consequences under discussion.

Is that what he means?

In this case, there is a growing body of evidence that he is actually responsible. As in, key failures came as direct results of decisions he made and how he managed his job. His decisions to staff critical jobs with patronage hires, his decision to politicize FEMA, his decisions about how to run DHS.

Which does he mean? How is he taking responsibility?

The shoe drop behind the responsibility moment?

Back on September 7th, Rep. John Conyers wrote to the Congressional Research Service (one of the few parts of the government that can legitimately be called non-partisan) and asked them to review the record to see whether Gov. Blanco of Louisiana took the necessary steps in a timely fashion to secure federal assistance in the face of hurricane Katrina.

The report came back yesterday. Yes, she did. Read it yourself.

I have no brief for Gov. Blanco and none of the president's critics should either. I'm not saying dump on her. But let the chips fall where they may. My friends in Louisiana tell me that on the ground Nagin is coming off better than she is, to the extent that public opinion can be gauged under such circumstances. But the White House has been hitting her for weeks now claiming that in various ways she dropped the ball. And that seems quite simply to be false.