Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A spokesman for the General in charge of Army operations in Louisiana says that the Army is not imposing any restrictions on the press operating on their own in the region.

This is in response to the article which appeared yesterday which quoted soldiers with the 82nd Airborne forbidding reporters to photograph or write about body removal.

"We don't profess to have any more authority than we have," says Lt. Col. John Cornelio. "You also have to appreciate we have 70,000 soldiers. There can be a 'Joe' or two who doesn't get it."

Last night we noted the new Knight-Ridder article which shows DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waiting some 36 hours to make the determination that Katrina was an 'Incident of National Significance'. Before that, Chertoff, not Michael Brown was in charge. And before Chertoff did that, Brown -- who's taken the big drubbing -- actually had little power to act.

This 'incident' finding is part of the new National Response Plan, which is supposed to govern federal responses to domestic disasters. Yet the plan appears to have been largely disregarded with Katrina.

But a TPM Reader pointed something out to me that suggests that Knight-Ridder might have gotten one detail wrong (or at least missed one) -- one which if anything makes the administration seem even more disorganized.

If you click here you can see a copy of the Chertoff memo which invoked the 'incident' finding.

But the reader points out that on page 7 of the Plan, it says quite clearly 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.."

And if you go back to August 27th, this is just what President Bush did. He declared a state of emergency in the state of Louisiana under Title V of the Stafford Act.

Ergo, Katrina became an Incident of National Significance on August 27th -- two days before the storm. But Chertoff apparently didn't realize this and waited till a day after to make the determination on his own, one that according to the flow chart had already been made.

Lawyers and DHSers will know more about whether I've construed these sections correctly. (I certainly haven't read all 400+ pages of the document.) But they at least seem pretty clear.

Still in the guesswork stage on the Cheney-Colonial pipeline issue noted below. But a couple readers note that -- inter alia -- that the Colonial Pipeline moves a lot of jet fuel, including military grade jet fuel. This may be a key reason for the urgency of getting that pipeline up and running. Still, though, that doesn't explain the highly irregular manner in which the orders apparently went out.

The endlessly underrated Knight-Ridder has an important article out which places a great deal of the blame for the laggard response to Katrina on Michael Chertoff.

The crux of the article is a point we and many other outlets have been reporting for some time -- that DHS Secretary Chertoff didn't declare Katrina an 'Incident of National Significance' until late on Tuesday August 30th, almost two days after the hurricane hit.

That's the administrative trip wire that sets off the standing government plans for a coordinated national response to natural or man-made disasters.

As Jonathan Landay, et al. explain, the now-reviled and discarded Michael Brown only had limited authority to act prior to Chertoff's determination on the night of the 30th.

Chertoff was the one in charge of the response before that.

Yet documents obtained by KR suggest that Chertoff "may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department" under the National Response Plan promulgated by the administration earlier this year.

There's a lot of stuff in this piece. And the leaks behind the story suggest much afoot.

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.