Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

It's almost awe-inspiring to see the level of energy and coordination the Bush White House can bring to bear in a genuine crisis. Not hurricane Katrina, of course, but the political crisis they now find rising around them.

As we noted yesterday, the storyline and the outlines of the attack are now clear: pin the blame for the debacle on state and local authorities.

So, let's get all the facts out on the table now. And let's not be afraid to let them all fall where they may. There's no need to make saints of Gov. Blanco or Mayor Nagin. In such a storm of error as this, it would not surprise me if they made a number of them too. But the reason you have a federal government and particularly a FEMA in cases like this is that it is in the nature of local and state authorities to be at least partly overwhelmed in disasters of this magnitude. Read what Ed Kilgore wrote a couple days ago at TPMCafe ...

Anyone who's been involved in a disaster response episode will tell you the first few days are characterized by absolute chaos. Basic logistics are fouled up; communications systems are paralyzed; a thousand urgent needs must be triaged; a vast welter of well-meaning but tunnel-visioned federal, state and local agencies, plus private charitable organizations and volunteers, rush in; local elected officials are forced in front of cameras to inform and reassure the affected population. Somebody has to be in charge of the chaos, and that's FEMA's job.

This is just one of the many reasons why the White House's main excuse -- that the locals didn't tell us what to do -- is such a grim joke.

But let me, just for starters, focus in on one specific case. Administration officials gave a series of blind quotes for an article that appeared in today's Washington Post.

One passage reads as follows ...

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.

I don't have the details yet <$Ad$> on the first point about the multi-state mutual aid compact. The state authorities seem to be saying that there was little point in making the request since the nearby states were also hit by Katrina. Indeed, this article says that Blanco accepted an offer of National Guard troops from New Mexico on Sunday, but that the paperwork didn't arrive from Washington until Thursday.

But let's focus in on the second point. Had Blanco still not declared a state of emergency as late as yesterday?

On the state of Louisiana website you can find this letter Gov. Blanco sent to President Bush on August 28th, that was last Sunday, just on the eve of the hurricane's landfall. (Here's the PDF and here is a text transcription.) Basically the letter is a laundry list of requests for aid and assistance from the federal government, invoking various laws, and so forth.

Some of the key passages include ...

Under the provisions of [the relevant federal law], I request that you declare an emergency for the State of Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina for the time period beginning August 26, 2005, and continuing ... In response to the situation I have taken appropriate action under State law and directed the execution of the State Emergency Plan on August 26, 2005 in accordance with Section 501 (a) of the Stafford Act. A State of Emergency has been issued for the State in order to support the evacuations of the coastal areas in accordance with our State Evacuation Plan ... Pursuant to 44 CFR § 206.35, I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments, and that supplementary Federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster ...

The referenced state declaration of emergency was apparently declared on August 26th, that is, the Friday before landfall.

There's also this Statement on Federal Emergency Assistance for Louisiana, which appears on the White House website dated August 27th, which begins: "The President today declared an emergency exists in the State of Louisiana and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts in the parishes located in the path of Hurricane Katrina beginning on August 26, 2005, and continuing."

Key excerpts include ...

The President's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe ... Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.

Now, it seems to me there are three points that make sense to raise with all this data.

The first is the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture and that is the fact that this whole conversation we're having now is not about substance, but procedural niceties, excuses which is it is beyond shameful for an American president to invoke in such a circumstance. We don't live in the 19th century. All you really needed was a subscription to basic cable to know almost all of the relevant details (at least relevant to know what sort of assistance was needed) about what was happening late last week. The president and his advisors want to duck responsibility by claiming, in so many words, that the Louisiana authorities didn't fill out the right forms. So what they're trying to pull is something like a DMV nightmare on steroids.

Second, as long as the White House wants to play this game, there are various invocations of federal statutes in this proclamations. And we'd need a lawyer with relevant experience to pick apart whether the right sections and powers were invoked.

Third -- and this is key -- even on its own terms, the White House's claims seem false on their face. The plain English of this documents shows that states of emergency had been declared on both the state and federal level before the hurricane hit and that at the state's request the president had given FEMA plenary powers to "identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency."

David Broder helps the president up into the booster seat ...

It took almost no time for President Bush to put his stamp on the national response to the tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, a reminder that modern communications have reshaped the constitutional division of powers in our government in ways that the Founding Fathers never could have imagined.

Because the commander in chief is also the communicator in chief, when a crisis emerges the nation's eyes turn to him as to no other official. We cannot yet calculate the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating human and economic consequences, but one thing seems certain: It makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public.


Let me extend my condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of Chief Justice Rehnquist, who as you know died last night of thyroid cancer at age 80. I didn't post on this last night; and I doubt I will any more in the coming days or even weeks -- not because it isn't important news with all sorts of historic implications, but because I have little of value to add to the conversation.

Now at least we have the storyline. The Bush administration wasn't caught sleeping on the job while New Orleans went under with a gutted FEMA run by a guy who got fired from his last job policing horse shows. In fact, according to the new White House storyline, the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans didn't ask for help quickly enough. And the White House was powerless to act until they did. Apparently they couldn't even reschedule the president's vacation until the locals got the right forms signed<$NoAd$>.

Here's the early version hot off the presses from 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.

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."

Blanco made two moves Saturday that protected her independence from the federal government: She created a philanthropic fund for the state's victims and hired James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency director in the Clinton administration, to advise her on the relief effort.

Bush, who has been criticized, even by supporters, for the delayed response to the disaster, used his weekly radio address to put responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government. The magnitude of the crisis "has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities," he said. "The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable."

CNN actually did a decent job picking apart Michael Chertoff's tissue of lies this afternoon. Let's see who drops to their knees for the new mumbojumbo coming down the pike.

Earlier today we noted Michael Chertoff's laughable claim that there was no way the government could have foreseen two natural disasters, one right upon the other -- i.e., a hurricane followed by a flood. This is sort of like the earthquake followed by the building collapse. But CNN, to my surprise, truly skewers Chertoff in this piece up on their site.

Knight-Ridder adds some nice color to the Michael Brown debacle ...

Brown's ticket to FEMA was Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's 2000 campaign manager and an old friend of Brown's in Oklahoma. When Bush ran for president in 2000, Brown was ending a rocky tenure at the horse association.

Brown told several association officials that if Bush were elected, he'd be in line for a good job. When Allbaugh, who managed Bush's campaign, took over FEMA in 2001, he took Brown with him as general counsel.

"He's known Joe Allbaugh for quite some time," said Andrew Lester, an Oklahoma lawyer who's been a friend of Brown's for more than 20 years. "I think they know each other from school days. I think they did some debate type of things against each other, and worked on some Republican politics together."

And some morsels about the horse years ...

From 1991 until 2000, Brown earned about $100,000 a year as the chief rules enforcer of the Arabian horse association.

He was known as "The Czar" for the breadth of his power and the enthusiasm with which he wielded it, said Mary Anne Grimmell, a former association president.


Brown's old friend Lester said the progression from horse shows to hurricanes was natural.

"A lot of what he had to do was stand in the breach in difficult, controversial situations," Lester said. "Which I think would well prepare him for his work at FEMA."

The article also says Brown made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1988.

So let me see if I understand this. <$NoAd$>Brown's a Republican from the southwest. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress when he was thirty-three. Then he bounced from job to job, finally getting into the sports business in mid-life, before getting canned. And then he used connections to land himself a high-powered position in the federal government for which he had no apparent experience at all.

How could such a fellow possibly be in the Bush administration?

I too saw the Chertoff press conference Jon Cohn notes over at TPMCafe, or at least the part of it in which Chertoff trotted out what I guess is going to be the 'double-up justification' for the slow federal response to Katrina.

As Jon wrote: "Chertoff says this was a unique, unpredictable one-two punch -- of a hurricane *and* a flood from a breached levee -- that nobody anticipated."

I actually thought I heard him parse it into three events. But I was writing as I listened; and press reports bear out Jon's recollection.

But in any case, same difference: this is truly a parse for the ages.

The one snippet of the transcript I was able to find online has Chertoff saying: "We were prepared for one catastrophe. The second catastrophe, frankly, added a level of challenge that no one has seen before.”

Clearly, clearly, the hurricane and the flood were part of the same natural disaster. This isn't like a tornado being followed up by an earthquake. The flooding is part of the hurricane. It's almost surreal to even have to argue this point it's so obvious. But there it is.

Clearly, the White House is pulling out every stop to argue for the impossibility of predicting what happened. But remember, everyone seems to agree that a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane would have created a storm surge that overtopped the levees. I want to go back and check all the details on this. But my understanding is that Katrina -- which was coming into Louisiana as a Cat 5 -- ratchetted down in final hours and actually hit NOLA as a Cat 3. This is part of what created that brief period in which it seemed that the city emerged more or less intact. The immediate storm surge didn't overtop the levees. But then levees failed and/or some were overtopped.

Whatever the details on that point, whether levees failed or were overtopped, the feds and everyone else had every reason to believe over the weekend that the city was going to be flooded. This scenario was not only predictable, but actively predicted as a likely scenario.

One other point: at Chertoff's press conference, he introduced someone as Deputy Director of FEMA. I assume it was this guy noted by Al Kamen in the Post's Inside the Loop column back on August 1st ...

Michael D. Brown , who runs the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, sent around a memo a couple of weeks ago saying "effective immediately," his chief of staff, Patrick Rhode , was the acting deputy director.

This caused some head-scratching, because there is no official deputy director position at FEMA, because there is no official director. The last person to hold such a post was Brown, before FEMA got folded into DHS. (Brown is now officially DHS undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response.)

A recent strategic review called for naming a deputy director, but Congress hasn't approved that plan and agencies don't usually go ahead without congressional blessing. Even more curious, it's not clear whether DHS or the White House, which approves such personnel moves, had signed off on Brown's move. FEMA says its general counsel approved the action.

Brown is widely expected to be leaving soon, and there has been some FEMA speculation that this is his way of trying to pave the way for a successor. Rhode had been associate administrator of the Small Business Administration.

(ed.note: Thanks to TPM Reader PR for the catch.)

I'm getting unconfirmed reports that Louisiana Gov. Blanco is now announcing that she's hired James Lee Witt as state reconstruction czar. Apparently, she beat the feds to him.

Late Update: I've yet to get any confirmation on this. And this post from the Times-Picayune on Blanco's press conference makes no mention of Witt. So this remains very much unconfirmed.

Later Update: Now confirmed.

TPM Reader JS checks in ...

[James Lee] Witt actually oversaw the recovering from flooding in Arkansas 15 or so years ago. I was there, I know. As head of FEMA, he had an impeccable record of responding well and the best ever to disasters. He drew bipartisan support including from Bush. So why are Democrats and others not demanding that HE not Rudy who has no experience with flooding and hurricanes _ but WITT BE PUT IN CHARGE OF THIS?!!! He has experience, the qualifications and the proven record. No one in this administration or Rudy has that.

JS must be responding <$Ad$> to Newt Gingrich's call to put Rudy Giuliani in charge of reconstruction.

First, though, let's remember that Rudy's moments of greatness were during the attacks and their immediate aftermath. His record in work that is comparable to what's on offer here is decidely more mixed. Do we want Bernie Kerik retooling the gambling boats down on the Delta? Maybe the bars on Bourbon Street?

In truth, though, I'm not sure even appointing an eminently qualified guy like Witt as Bush's Delta Czar will be enough to insulate the operation from the administration's endemic cronyism and graft. Maybe we need to be thinking of something more along the lines of the RTC, a time-limited government-chartered corporation run by non-partisan professionals. Can we really afford to blow another $100 billion? Think about it. Haven't we already seen the Baghdad version of this movie?