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Missing Katrina transcripts: Who know what
Mark Hosenball
March 1, 2006

Web Exclusive
Updated: 7:18 p.m. ET March 1, 2006

March 1, 2006 - The vacationing President George W. Bush was "very engaged" in monitoring Hurricane Katrina developments right from the day that the hurricane made landfall, according to Michael Brown, then chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown's comments about the  president surfaced in a transcript of an Aug. 29, 2005, videoconference call produced by Bush administration officials today after they initially told Congress that no such document existed.

During the FEMA-run conference call—one of a series of noon calls in which top local, state and federal officials reported on the progress of the storm and on the government responses to it—Brown says that on Aug. 29, the Monday that Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, he had talked to Bush twice, "once in Crawford and then again on Air Force One."

The president "remains very very interested in this situation. He's obviously watching the television a lot, and he had some questions about the [Superdome]. He's asking questions about reports of [levee] breaches. He's asking about hospitals. He's very engaged, and he's asking a lot of really good questions I would expect him to ask," Brown told the conference call, according to a transcript that was sent to NEWSWEEK by the White House on Wednesday morning.

Later in the conference call, according to the transcript, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is asked by Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, about the status of the New Orleans levees. Blanco replies: "We keep getting reports in some places that maybe water is coming over the levees … I think we have not breached the levee. We have not breached the levee at this point in time. That could change, but in some places we have floodwaters coming in New Orleans East and ... St. Bernard Parish where we have waters that are eight to 10 feet deep, and we have people swimming in there. That's got a considerable amount of water itself."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the newly discovered transcript demonstrates how President Bush "was very much engaged that day and throughout the days following, and senior White House staff was interested in the integrity of the levees." An administration official, speaking anonymously because of political sensitivity of the issue, also noted Blanco's evident uncertainty during the conference call about whether or not New Orleans levees had been breached. This supports the administration's contention that the White House was receiving conflicting reports during the course of Aug. 29 about whether the levees had been breached or simply "overtopped" by hurricane-driven flood waters.

Deputy Homeland Security adviser Kenneth Rapuano, the only White House official allowed by the administration to meet with congressional investigators examining governmental responses to Katrina, indicated to House investigators in two recent closed-door meetings that he left the White House around 10 p.m. on the night of Aug. 29 without a clear understanding of whether or not the levees had been breached. White House officials maintained that this was because written bulletins coming into the White House Situation Room presented contradictory information about whether the New Orleans flooding was due to levee breaches or supposedly less damaging "overtopping." The White House has maintained that Rapuano and other senior officials did not clearly realize that the levees had actually been breached until early on the morning of Aug. 30; White House officials in the past have also noted that Governor Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were uncertain on the 29th about levee breaches.

Administration and congressional officials said that the administration provided congressional investigators earlier this year with official transcripts of the daily noon FEMA conference calls conducted before, during and after Katrina. But the administration initially told Congress that the transcript for the Aug. 29 call—the call congressional investigators were most curious about, given that it occurred as the hurricane was actually battering the Gulf Coast—did not exist, with officials initially telling Capitol Hill that someone at FEMA or Homeland Security forgot to push the button on a tape recorder.

"Everybody has been looking for that transcript," former FEMA chief Michael Brown said Wednesday.

A White House official unexpectedly e-mailed the transcript to NEWSWEEK earlier today Wednesday morning—initially without explaining that it was the missing transcript. Two officials familiar with congressional investigations said that the document was turned over to Capitol Hill investigators Tuesday night. Administration officials told both Congress and NEWSWEEK that FEMA officials in Atlanta had taped the Aug. 29 conference call by aiming a video camera at a TV screen rather than following the usual recording procedure. The videotape was subsequently discovered and transcribed.

While the newly discovered transcript does provide new evidence of initial presidential engagement in the Katrina crisis and of conflicting information about the state of New Orleans levees on Aug. 29, it also exposes some contradictions in previous administration explanations about the role of the White House and top officials in handling the crisis.

Under questioning by congressional investigators as to why he went home at 10 p.m. on Aug. 29 amid conflicting reports about flooding and levee breaches, Rapuano indicated that the administration did not believe the White House was supposed to be a command center. He says he went home believing that FEMA's Michael Brown had all the resources he needed and that extensive search-and-rescue efforts were under way in New Orleans. Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said earlier this year: "The White House is not an operational institution. It doesn't run the nitty-gritty in natural disasters, and it doesn't direct bombing sorties in Iraq."

Some congressional investigators say it now seems somewhat ironic that having belatedly found the Aug. 29 conference-call transcript, the administration is now touting it as evidence of deep presidential—and White House—involvement in the crisis. White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Aug. 31 told reporters on Air Force One that the president was still deeply engaged in responding to Katrina. McClellan said Bush participated in a conference call that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Brown of FEMA, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend, chief of staff Andy Card, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, deputy national-security adviser J. D. Crouch, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett and others.

Congressional investigators say they can't recall seeing a transcript of this Aug. 31 conference call. An administration official said the White House is withholding the Aug. 31 transcript in order to protect the confidentiality of communications between the president and his advisers. Brown now says that after initially being deeply immersed in the crisis, "I think the president assumed, despite my warnings about FEMA's marginalization, that it could handle a catastrophic disaster, too. Clearly that was not the case because of budget and personnel cuts imposed by Homeland Security."

Original Text

I'm not entirely sure what this is a huge story. After Bush was told the US was under attack on 911, he sat in that classroom for seven minutes doing nothing. Lucky for those children it wasn't a nuclear attack. After Bush was warned about Katrina, he did what Bush always does - nothing. After all, he was on vacation (and with over one year of vacation time under his belt, Bush can't be expected to know what really going on can he?)

On the other hand, not giving congress this transcript is also typical of his contempt of congress (and the truth). The GOP will defend his incompetence and criminal behavior because that's all that's left of the party - defend Bush.