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Rumsfeld and Katrina

By The Reverend Published: May 19, 2009

Read the latest revelations about Donald Rumsfeld in an eye-opening GQ piece here.

Yesterday, some of the media focused on the Bible verse-laced cover letter pictures in Defense Department Daily Briefings sent out by Donald Rumsfeld's office during the Bush/Cheney wars of choice. While those are revealing and important in their own right, it's the role Rumsfeld played in the Katrina quagmire that got my attention. Here is an abbreviated portion....

....a final story of Rumsfeld’s intransigence begins on Wednesday, August 31, 2005. Two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans—and the same day that Bush viewed the damage on a flyover from his Crawford, Texas, retreat back to Washington—a White House advance team toured the devastation in an Air Force helicopter. Noticing that their chopper was outfitted with a search-and-rescue lift, one of the advance men said to the pilot, “We’re not taking you away from grabbing people off of rooftops, are we?”

“No, sir,” said the pilot. He explained that he was from Florida’s Hurlburt Field Air Force base—roughly 200 miles from New Orleans—which contained an entire fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters. “I’m just here because you’re here,” the pilot added. “My whole unit’s sitting back at Hurlburt, wondering why we’re not being used.”

The search-and-rescue helicopters were not being used because Donald Rumsfeld had not yet approved their deployment—even though, as Lieutenant General Russ Honoré, the cigar-chomping commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, would later tell me, “that Wednesday, we needed to evacuate people. The few helicopters we had in there were busy, and we were trying to deploy more.”
.....

“It was commonly known in the West Wing that there was a battle with Rumsfeld regarding this,” said the official. “I can’t imagine another defense secretary throwing up the kinds of obstacles he did.”

The next day, three days after landfall, word of disorder in New Orleans had reached a fever pitch. According to sources familiar with the conversation, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff called Rumsfeld that morning and said, “You’re going to need several thousand troops.”

“Well, I disagree,” said the SecDef. “And I’m going to tell the president we don’t need any more than the National Guard.”
......

Having only recently come to grips with the roiling disaster, Bush convened a meeting in the Situation Room on Friday morning. According to several who were present, the president was agitated. Turning to the man seated at his immediate left, Bush barked, “Rumsfeld, what the hell is going on there? Are you watching what’s on television? Is that the United States of America or some Third World nation I’m watching? What the hell are you doing?”

Rumsfeld replied by trotting out the ongoing National Guard deployments and suggesting that sending active-duty troops would create “unity of command” issues. Visibly impatient, Bush turned away from Rumsfeld and began to direct his inquiries at Lieutenant General Honoré on the video screen. “From then on, it was a Bush-Honoré dialogue,” remembers another participant. “The president cut Rumsfeld to pieces. I just wish it had happened earlier in the week.”

But still the troops hadn’t arrived. And by Saturday morning, says Honoré, “we had dispersed all of these people across Louisiana. So we needed more troops to go to distribution centers, feed people, and maintain traffic.” That morning Bush convened yet another meeting in the Situation Room. Chertoff was emphatic. “Mr. President,” he said, “if we’re not going to begin to get these troops, we’re not going to be able to get the job done.”

Rumsfeld could see the writing on the wall and had come prepared with a deployment plan in hand. Still, he did not volunteer it. Only when Bush ordered, “Don, do it,” did he acquiesce and send in the troops—a full five days after landfall.

Today, when I presented this account to Rumsfeld’s then homeland-affairs assistant, Paul McHale, he denied that Rumsfeld’s actions resulted in any delay: “This was by far the largest, fastest deployment of forces probably for any purposes in the history of the United States.” McHale argues that Rumsfeld’s caution was due to his conviction that Bush could not send in the military as de facto law-enforcement officers under the Insurrection Act. But as one of the top lawyers involved in such scenarios for Katrina would say, “That in my mind was just a stall tactic so as not to get the active-duty military engaged. All you needed to do was use them for logistics.”

I always knew Rumsfeld was a burnt-out, craven, and terribly cynical man. I just never knew to what degree. Now I do.

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