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White House Punts as the Wackenhuts Blitz

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 2, 2005

The Bush administration, struggling to master the chaos of New Orleans, seems to have a logistical problem closer to home: getting the White House on the same page with the Homeland Security Department.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan arrived 25 minutes late for his noon briefing yesterday, then told reporters that if they had specific questions about Hurricane Katrina, they should save them for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at his 1:30 briefing.

Thirteen times, on such basics as damage estimates, displaced people, looting, violence and foreign aid, McClellan's answer was the same: "Those are questions you might want to direct to the Department of Homeland Security."

But when McClellan finished and reporters raced up Massachusetts Avenue for Chertoff's briefing, they were turned back. "Too late," one DHS official said. "You had to be here by 12:45." A White House aide tried to intervene with the department but reported back: "They won't open the door." Finally, DHS relented, but the Wackenhut private security guards at the gate overruled everybody.

"Guards!" one of the Wackenhuts called. "Take them out!"

Thus was the true hierarchy within the federal government revealed: DHS outranks the White House, and Wackenhut trumps them all. "If the White House and Homeland Security can't coordinate the press briefings," wondered Victoria Jones of Talk Radio News Service, "then how much coordinating can we expect in the biggest natural disaster ever to face the United States?"

McClellan may have set a record yesterday for punts in a single briefing. Some excerpts:

Q: What's the latest estimates of the damage caused by the hurricane?

A: There's going to be an operational update later today by Secretary Chertoff. That might be a place to direct that question.

Q: We've heard a number of reports about crime deterring people from making rescues. . . . Can you, sort of, set the record straight on what you're hearing?

A: No, I think that the best place to ask that question is going to be at the briefing at 1:30 or the briefing later today by FEMA officials.

Q: Do you have any kind of an estimate as to how many . . . are still displaced, unsheltered?


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