Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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?

Today's Times devotes a whole article to the criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown. ("Leader of Federal Effort Feels the Heat")

Here's the treatment of his professional background ...

Mr. Brown, 50, is a Republican lawyer who worked for the International Arabian Horse Association before joining FEMA in 2001 as general counsel. This week he has become the public face of an agency that critics say has lost focus and clout since it was absorbed in 2003 by the new Department of Homeland Security.

If you don't know why that reporting sounds a tad thin, read the post below.

Yesterday the Houston Chronicle reported that Halliburton has been hired by the Navy to repair its damaged facilities in Mississippi and perform initial damage assessments of facilities in New Orleans.

The work was assigned, reported the Chronicle, "under a 'construction capabilities' contract awarded in 2004 after a competitive bidding process." But it raises a question it is not at all too early to ask. The egg is pretty much cooked on the relief operation. But in the coming days and weeks we will move into a recovery phase in which, no doubt, tens of billions of dollars will be spent cleaning up and rebuilding not just New Orleans but big sections of the Gulf Coast.

Does anyone believe that the Bush administration can handle that money and that task without widespread waste, fraud and cronyism?

That's not just a question for partisan Democrats. I would think that there are a lot of Republicans up for reelection next year who are probably giving that question some serious thought. They may not want to attack the president. They may even want their own seat on the gravy train. But they know the record as well as anyone. And they may not want to be carrying the president's water a year from now when the news stories are filling the papers.

The news out today about FEMA Director Michael Brown tells the ugly tale. So let's just review what we now know -- with key new details first from a diarist at DailyKos and now confirmed in more depth in this morning's Boston Herald.

Michael Brown is a lawyer and GOP party activist. Before he came to FEMA in 2001, he had a full-time job overseeing horse-shows as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. He started with them in 1991. But he was eventually fired because of what the Herald describes as "after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures." (The Kos diary has some more details.)

But the stars were shining on Brown because President Bush had just been elected. And he appointed his chief political fixer Joe Allbaugh to replace James Lee Witt as head of FEMA.

That was a good break for the recently-canned Brown, because, as we learn from the Herald, he and Allbaugh were college roommates. He hired Brown as his General Counsel at FEMA in February. And then, by the end of the year, he promoted him to Deputy Director.

Then, little more than a year later, Allbaugh left FEMA to set up New Bridge Strategies, a consultancy to cash in on the Iraqi contracts bonanza. On Allbaugh's departure from FEMA, Brown became Director, in charge of federal domestic emergency management in the United States.

So, just to recap, Brown had no experience whatsoever in emergency management. He was fired from his last job for incompetence. He was hired because he was the new director's college roommate. And after the director -- who himself got the job because he was a political fixer for the president -- left, he became top dog. And President Bush said yesterday that he thinks Brown is "doing a helluva job".

Tens of billions of federal dollars are going to be spent on reconstruction, though the first allotment is only $10.5 billion. Does anybody think Bush administration has the competence or honesty to manage that money? Does anybody think it won't be handled with the efficiency, expertise and integrity of the Iraqi reconstruction?