Levees Not War
National Security Begins at Home

How Rumsfeld Aggravated Katrina’s Destruction (How Many Died from SecDef’s Turf War?)

05/17/09

LNW_Rumsfeld-ReutersThe New York Times and other sources have reported on the biblical quotations that adorned the cover pages of Pentagon intelligence briefings sent to the Bush White House (“Therefore put on the full armor of God. . .”) in a GQ profile of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Draper. Not good, especially when the Muslim world had already heard Bush describe the War on Terror as a “crusade.” In our view, however, Draper’s most distressing revelation is that days after Hurricane Katrina, when tens of thousands of victims were in desperate need of rescue and medical care, Rumsfeld refused to deploy a fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters at Hurlburt Field Air Force Base in Florida—only 200 miles from New Orleans—who were waiting for go orders. Indeed, when Bush tried to drag cooperation out of him, Rumsfeld only grudgingly relented. A nice touch when 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded after the failure of the federally (Army Corps of Engineers-) built levees. From “And He Shall Be Judged” in the June 2009 issue of GQ, by Robert Draper, author of Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush:

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.”

Though various military bases had been mobilized into a state of alert well before the advance team’s tour, Rumsfeld’s aversion to using active-duty troops was evident: “There’s no doubt in my mind,” says one of Bush’s close advisers today, “that Rumsfeld didn’t like the concept.”

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.”

The problem was that the Guard deployment (which would eventually reach 15,000 troops) had not arrived—at least not in sufficient numbers, and not where it needed to be. And though much of the chaos was being overstated by the media, the very suggestion of a state of anarchy was enough to dissuade other relief workers from entering the city. 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.”

Only when Bush ordered, “Don, do it,” did he acquiesce and send in the troops—a full five days after landfall.

Ultimately, Rumsfeld’s obfuscations about National Guard rotations, unity-of-command challenges, and the Insurrection Act did not serve his commander in chief, says one senior official intimately involved with the whole saga: “There’s a difference between saying to the president of the United States, ‘I understand, and let me solve it,’ and making the president figure out the right question to ask.”

Thanks for the story tip to (Mr.) Dana Scott, professor emeritus of computer science, philosophy, and mathematical logic at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime friend of Levees Not War.

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