Documents Highlight Bush-Blanco Standoff

James Jackson was among the residents of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward who were allowed to check on their homes Sunday.
James Jackson was among the residents of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward who were allowed to check on their homes Sunday. (By Nam Y. Huh -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu, Joby Warrick and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 5, 2005

Shortly after noon on Aug. 31, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) delivered a message that stunned aides to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who were frantically managing the catastrophe that began two days earlier when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

White House senior adviser Karl Rove wanted it conveyed that he understood that Blanco was requesting that President Bush federalize the evacuation of New Orleans. The governor should explore legal options to impose martial law "or as close as we can get," Vitter quoted Rove as saying, according to handwritten notes by Terry Ryder, Blanco's executive counsel.

Thus began what one aide called a "full-court press" to compel the first-term governor to yield control of her state National Guard -- a legal, political and personal campaign by White House staff that failed three days later when Blanco rejected the administration's terms, 10 minutes before Bush was to announce them in a Rose Garden news conference, the governor's aides said.

The standoff, illuminated among more than 100,000 pages of documents released Friday by Blanco in response to requests by Senate and House investigators, marks perhaps the clearest single conflict between U.S. and Louisiana officials in the bungled response to New Orleans's surrender to floodwaters and chaos.

While attention has focused on the performance of former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown, and communications breakdowns that kept Washington from recognizing for 12 to 16 hours the scope of flooding that would drive the storm's death toll above 1,200, the clash over military control highlights government officials' lack of familiarity with the levers of emergency powers.

Blanco's top aides relied on ad hoc tutorials from the National Guard about who would be in charge and how to call in federal help. But in the inevitable confusion of fast-moving events, partisan differences and federal/state divisions prevented top leaders from cooperating.

A Blanco aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the people around Bush were trying to maneuver the governor into an unnecessary change intended to make Bush look decisive.

"It was an overwhelming natural disaster. The federal government has an agency that exists for purposes of coming to the rescue of localities in a natural disaster, and that organization did not live up to what it was designed for or promised to," the aide said. Referring to Bush aides, he said, "It was time to recover from the fiasco, and take a win wherever you could, legitimate or not."

Vitter, in an interview, disagreed but acknowledged the clash.

"In my opinion, they [Blanco aides] were hypersensitive. . . . They seemed to feel there was some power play, which I don't think there was," he said. "The fact that it was [Rove] -- might that have fueled the governor's hypersensitivity? It may have, I don't know."

White House spokeswoman Christie Parell said: "The president has said that these reviews are critically important and that government at all levels could have done better. But our focus right now is on ensuring that victims of Katrina are getting what they need to get back on their feet."

In any event, the conflict delayed the arrival of active-duty troops in New Orleans, where reports of looting and violence prevented rescuers from retrieving stranded residents and evacuating hospitals and the Louisiana Superdome.

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