Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Small world. The Times and the Post note that one possible reason for the White House's slow response to Katrina was that so many key appointees were on vacation. A number, for instance, were in Greece for <$Ad$> the wedding of White House communications advisor Nicolle Devenish.

It so happens Devenish is marrying Mark Wallace, who, it turns out, took over from the esteemed Michael Brown as General Counsel of FEMA when Brown ascended from General Counsel to Deputy Director.

Wallace was General Counsel at FEMA as the agency was being transitioned into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and 2003. After that he took a different job at DHS before becoming Deputy Campaign Manager of the Bush-Cheney 2004.

According to The Hotline (10/16/03), Wallace got his start in politics as Jeb Bush's driver in 1994.

(ed. note: Thanks to TPM Reader MC for the tip.)

As noted, the Washington Post got burned today by a "senior Bush official" who told them that Gov. Blanco of Louisiana had never declared a state of emergency in the site -- a claim the Post printed as fact. Yet the claim was demonstrably false and by late afternoon the Post had been compelled to print a correction.

This week's Newsweek contains the same false claim -- and though their recital of the anecdote is unsourced, common sense suggests that someone or some operation fed them both the same line, which neither organization checked out before running.

Monday's Times, not surprisingly, confirms that the White House damage control operation is being run by Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett.

Add it up.

And who will report this out?

Monday WaPo: "One reason for the slow White House response, said a Republican who has been in contact with several officials, is that so many high-level officials and aides were on vacation. Vice President Cheney, for instance, was in Wyoming and did not return unil Thursday, and Nicolle Devenish, the president's top communications adviser, is getting married in Greece with a number of mid-level aides in attendance."

Did Newsweek get spun too?

One way or another, let's get this straightened out once and for all.

As we've discussed over the course of the day, the Washington Post ran an article today in which they reported, on the say-so of an unidentified "senior Bush official", that as late as yesterday Louisiana Gov. Blanco still hadn't gotten around to declaring a state of emergency. This, allegedly, had prevented a more rapid federal response.

Only this claim seemed to be belied by a copious public record, not least of which was the actual declaration of a state of emergency dated August 26th, 2005, available on the state of Louisiana website.

The falsity of what the "senior Bush official" told the Post apparently turned out to be so patently obvious that before the day was out the Post issued a correction, noting Blanco's declaration on the 26th.

Yet the new issue of Newsweek says this of Blanco, as of September 1st, almost a week later ...

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help.

Now, all the rights and wrongs of this tragic debacle will turn on weightier facts than the day on which Blanco issued this declaration. But this claim, which appeared in two major national publications, seems to be patently false. In both the Post and Newsweek the anecdote appears as an illustration of Blanco's dawdling which prevented a more rapid federal response.

The Post got played by a senior administration official. Pretty odd that Newsweek would come up with the same false anecdote on their own, right?

Who's Newsweek's source?

For all the horror of what went on at the Superdome and the convention center in New Orleans, we know so much about those cases because they were central points. There were lots of journalists there and thus lots of coverage. But before too much more time goes by, I want to call your attention to a post Ed Kilgore did a few days ago at his site, in which he excerpted this passage from the blog currently being run by the New Orleans Times-Picayune ...

About 100 people have died at the Chalmette Slip after being pulled off their rooftops, waiting to be ferried up the river to the West Bank and bused out of the flood ravaged area, U.S. Rep. Charles Melancon, D-Napoleonville, said Thursday.

About 1,500 people were at the slip on Thursday afternoon, where critical supplies like food and water are scarce, he said. Melancon expressed serious frustration with the slow pace of getting these items to the people waiting to finish their journey to safety. Many of those at the slip were evacuated from a shelter set up at Chalmette High School that suffered massive flooding as the waters rose during Hurricane Katrina. Melancon said people are being plucked out of their water-surrounded houses, but the effort to get them out of Chalmette and provide them with sufficient sustenance is the problem.

A hundred people. Precise numbers <$NoAd$> are very difficult to nail down in the short-term under such circumstances. And the very round number suggests an estimate. But unless this story is wholly false, dozens of people died not of drowning or even before being rescued, but simply because they couldn't be moved from one way station to the next.

Why do people drop dead like this? Presumably a disproportionate number were old and at risk, or people with chronic illnesses without access to their medication. Depending on the circumstances, dehydration and/or dysentery probably played an important role. Whatever the details, how many stories like this will there be?

Check out this document that Larry Johnson has found, a National (disaster) Response Plan that the administration promulgated last December which seems to say explicitly that in the event of a catastrophic disaster the federal government need not wait for any explicit request for the local authorities in the affected regions.

Lesson learned?

Earlier today we noted that in today's papers the Post passed on a claim from a "senior Bush official" that "as of Saturday [i.e.,Sept.4], [Gov.]Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency."

As TPM -- and probably half the blogosphere -- pointed out, there is voluminous information in the public record showing this to be demonstrably false.

The Post just ran this correction ...

A Sept. 4 article on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina incorrectly said that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) had not declared a state of emergency. She declared an emergency on Aug. 26.

Good for them for correcting the record. But are they going to be taking more blind quotes from this senior official who got them to pass on misinformation to their readers?

And one other point: for all the truly foolish chattering about anonymous sources and blind quotes a few months ago, this is a terrific example of the worst sort of anonymous sourcing. This claim by the administration official was obviously meant to place blame on Gov. Blanco. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Maybe she deserved blame. Reporters frequently have to rely on interested parties to bring key information to their attention.

But in this case, this is a straightforward factual assertion. What you do in such a case is find out whether it's true or not. If it is, you don't need to source it to your tipster. You run it as a fact. What you don't do is take an interested party's say-so on an easily verifiable claim and run it as a blind quote.

In light of the post immediately below we've set up a thread over at TPMCafe to document, discuss and dissect that storm of disinformation the White House is putting out today to pass the buck on the debacle in New Orleans. Let us know what you heard on the Sunday shows, post links to the documents that contradict, etc.

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.