Lawyers vs. Katrina

“I’ve got this down,” Michael Chertoff boasted to aides last weekend as he staved off questions on television about handling the Katrina disaster. It turned out, however, that the secretary of Homeland Security did not begin to have it “down” when he subsequently was interrogated by Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Chertoff’s miserable performance on the air reflected a fiasco at all levels of government.

“There’ll be plenty of time,” Chertoff told Russert, to “do the after-action analysis.” That bloodless dismissal made the human tragedy and physical mayhem on the Gulf Coast seem like a bureaucratic mistake. What Chertoff “got down” was the White House mantra, repeated endlessly, that the “after-action analysis” should not interfere with current recovery operations. It was similar to saying the Pearl Harbor attack should not have been investigated and nobody disciplined for failures until World War II was won.

Democrats have seized on the administration’s performance in handling Katrina to bash George W. Bush, but Republicans are not much happier with him. The common complaint is that the president has let the lawyers take over. Chertoff, a former federal judge and assistant attorney general, is a quintessential lawyer who has surrounded himself at Homeland Security with more lawyers. Michael D. Brown, who as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is Chertoff’s subordinate, is also a lawyer. Neither Chertoff nor Brown was experienced in politics or large-scale management before joining the Bush administration.

Chertoff’s inexperience was shown when he said “I’ve got this down” into an open microphone, thinking he was safe because the cameras were off and not realizing his words were transmitted via satellite. He clearly saw himself as an advocate tailoring what he said to a lawyer’s brief.

Political deafness mixed with lawyerly evasion was shown on “Meet the Press” when Chertoff claimed the breaking of the New Orleans levees “really caught everybody by surprise.” Russert cited repeated forecasts of this disaster by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but Chertoff insisted he did not say what he had just said.

Russert gave Chertoff a good going over, but that performance did not provoke Republican complaints (except for the usual grousing from White House aides). When Republican House members participated in a telephone conference call Sept. 1, the air was blue with complaints about the handling of Katrina. There was much hand-wringing about Republican prospects in the 2006 elections. Politics aside, however, the GOP lawmakers were unhappy with their administration’s performance.

Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach, Fla., not known as a shouter, was especially critical. Contrary to claims that FEMA’s Brown was doing just fine until Katrina struck, Foley has been at odds with Brown over the government’s handling of hurricanes that have hit his Florida district. Foley has stories of Brown’s denial of reality and FEMA’s inherent bureaucratic sluggishness. Attempts in Florida to send 500 airboats to the Gulf Coast to help, the congressman says, hit a governmental brick wall.

Criticism of FEMA was even voiced at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting of all places. While all other Cabinet members were silent, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Alphonso Jackson blew the whistle. He said HUD’s readiness to send emergency housing to New Orleans was thwarted by FEMA’s red tape.

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut is more liberal than nearly all his fellow Republicans, but he has tried to be a Bush loyalist. He is a member of the Homeland Security Committee and chairs the national security subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee. Consequently, it is noteworthy when he accuses the administration of “a real sense of arrogance. Loyalty and never admitting a mistake matters more than the truth. It has a Nixon feel to me.”

The Democrats on the ground, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, have done little to commend themselves. But that does not excuse the federal performance, in the candid opinion of many Republicans. To start with, these Republicans talk about taking FEMA back from the Homeland Security Department. They agree that heads must roll, certainly Brown’s and possibly Chertoff’s. Above all, these Republican politicians say, let’s get the lawyers out of disaster relief.