One of the most contentious issues about the failed Hurricane Katrina response is why our country's on-call, always-ready troops didn't arrive in Louisiana to help until September 5, a week after the storm hit.
The issue has been subjected to endless hype and spin: the Bush team claims they were never given authority to act, Louisiana's Gov. Blanco says Washington was unresponsive, and others pointing to the larger context of our stretched-out armed forces, especially the National Guard.
Reporter Robert Travis Scott attempts to unravel the truth in a good piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, drawing mostly on the mountain of documents Louisiana officials have turned over to Congress investigating the Katrina response.
But the story's headline -- "Politics delayed troops dispatch to N.O." -- doesn't match the evidence in the story that it was the White House, not just "politics," that caused hundreds to die as residents waited for troops to arrive.
Both the Bush Administration and Louisiana officials were involved in political jockeying. The story, which focuses on the Louisiana side, reveals painful emails that show how much time and energy state leaders were pouring into PR battles in the heart of the disaster:
"By the weekend, the Bush administration will have a full-blown PR disaster/scandal on their hands because of the late response to needs in New Orleans," according to a Sept. 1 e-mail message sent by Blanco communications director Bob Mann ...
Kopplin advised the Blanco staff by e-mail that "we need to keep working to get our national surrogates to explain the facts."
But Blanco and Louisiana officials had every right to be concerned, because the White House was waging a PR battle of its own:
Any paranoia that Blanco officials might have had about a GOP agenda was fed by phone calls and e-mail messages from national media and other sources. For example, an ABC News reporter wrote Blanco's press secretary, "2 senior GOP aides have called me to suggest we should be focusing more blame on Governor Blanco." ...
An e-mail message between Blanco aides said a prominent New Orleans banker "called . . . this morning and has it on very good authority that (White House strategist) Karl Rove is directing effort to put blame on kbb (governor) for mess saying that the reason feds not on ground sooner was that she refused to give up her authority."
It's tempting to stop there, and blame both sides for allowing hundreds to die while they tried to get a one-up in the media spin wars. There's some truth to this, but buried in the story is the deeper issue that led to the armed-forces stand-off: who would be in control.
The issue was never -- as the White House and right-wing pundits attempted to claim -- that Blanco and Louisiana leaders hadn't asked for troop involvement. The story marshalls evidence which shows that this claim is at best an excuse, and at worst a lie:
* On the day Katrina hit, Blanco told Bush "We need everything you've got" -- which made Bush's claim a day later that the governor had "not specifically requested troops" look like he was wiggling out on a technicality.
* On August 30, after a trip to the Superdome, Blanco's National Guard chief, Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, specifically requested federal military involvement to Lt. Gen. Russel Honore of the federal response task force, and Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
* On August 31, "Blanco called Bush at 2:20 p.m. to say she wanted a federal troop mobilization 'today' and asked that someone communicate to her when the soldiers would arrive."
So Louisiana asked for troops. The hold-up was about who would be in command: the Bush Administration wanted to "federalize" the operation, including taking over control of the Louisiana National Guard. Blanco and Louisiana officials wanted to retain oversight.
The White House was especially adamant about a federal take-over. The drama reached its height on August 31, when Louisiana leaders discovered that Karl Rove was making federalization a crusade from his White House perch:
[T]he mention of Rove, a shrewd and aggressive molder of public opinion, was a red flag. Blanco aides feared his involvement meant the federalization issue had become a political flash point, as internal memos indicated that week. At one point a memo from Kopplin said, "Rove is on the prowl."
Let's step back and ask a question: Why was an administration made up of states' rights Republicans pushing for a federal take-over of the National Guard response? Blanco's team feared it was a way for Bush to step in and appear the hero after public outrage at the botched hurricane response.
But more to the point, there was no reason for Governor Blanco to give up control. And experts she consulted told her she shouldn't, especially considering that the main point of federal intervention -- getting other states to commit their guard detachments -- wasn't an issue, since many were already sending them, some without approval:
Blanco officials talked to military brass about the consequences of federalizing, with most officers advising the governor to maintain control over her Guard troops.
Among the most important recommendations was the one by Blum, the National Guard Bureau chief, who said the governor had nothing to gain by federalizing her Guard, according to Ryder's notes. Besides, massive numbers of Guard units now were flowing in quickly from other states, Blum pointed out.
There were also legal issues about limits on federally-controlled troops engaging in local policing -- which the White House, instead of acknowledging, tasked the Department of Justice with finding out ways to get around.
So what ended up happening? On September 3, President Bush sauntered into the White House Rose Garden to announce federal troop deployments.
Under Bush's order that morning, Blanco and Landreneau [of Louisiana] would keep authority over the Guard, and the president and Honore [of the federal response] would rule federal forces in the region.
It was the same point they had started with when Landreneau had called Honore four days earlier asking for help.
Let's repeat that: they ended up using the proposal for troop deployment that Louisiana officials had conceded to four days earlier, delayed largely by the White House's insistence on a takeover of the operation.
Make no mistake: as many have said, there is plenty of blame to spread around in criticizing the Katrina response. But in the rush for "balance" and he-said, she-said reporting, let's not forget there are sometimes basic truths -- in this case, the fact that the White House's zeal for control and a PR victory resulted in hundreds of lost lives:
[By the time troops were deployed], many people had died, or had lived through frightful and inhumane conditions waiting to be rescued or bused out. By the end of the day, the Superdome and convention center would be evacuated.
For more Katrina coverage, visit Facing South's spinoff investigative project, Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch