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.
Blanco has said she asked Bush on Aug. 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, "for everything you've got," requesting 40,000 troops on Aug. 31. The president deployed 7,000 active-duty troops on Sept. 3. Thousands more National Guard troops were already on the ground.
But White House officials were concerned enough about what Brown and military leaders have testified to Congress was a lack of "unified command" to bring state Guard troops and active-duty federal troops under a single commander. They ultimately declined to force the issue over Blanco's objection and worked with existing command authorities.
But Blanco's reluctance stemmed from several factors. According to documents and aides, her team was not familiar with relevant laws and procedures, believed the change would have disrupted Guard law enforcement operations in New Orleans and mistrusted the Bush team, which they saw as preoccupied with its own public relations problems and blame shifting.
Within 30 minutes of receiving Rove's message on Aug. 31, Ryder and Blanco Chief of Staff Andrew Kopplin were briefed by Col. Jeff Smith, a senior state emergency preparedness official, advising them of the National Response Plan and Incident Command System, basic components of the Department of Homeland Security's playbook that lay out the chain of emergency authority.
By 2:20 p.m., Blanco called Bush, saying she needed additional resources but not federalization, according to Ryder's notes. Instead, she said an emerging federal/state partnership was jelling and asked Bush instead to commit to an arrival date for troops.
"We don't know necessarily what 'unified' command, or what do these words mean," the Blanco aide said. "The governor thinks that by that time, the command structure that is coming together will work."
The next day, on a Bush visit, administration officials ganged up on Blanco out of the presence of staff members and tried to bully her into changing her mind, they said. Blanco requested 24 hours.
Ryder's notes report that on the night of Sept. 1, Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, advised Blanco, as an aide put it, "You don't want to do that. You lose control, and you don't get one more boot on the ground."
Later, Blum told Ryder he came "under political duress" for his opinion and used military slang to describe an out-of-control situation, according to Ryder's notes.
At about the same time, Blanco communications director Bob Mann spoke to an aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who said Democrats were eagerly "mobilizing big-time to push back on criticism of the state."
"Bush's numbers are low, they are getting pummeled by the media for their inept response to Katrina and are actively working to make us the scapegoats," Mann wrote to Ryder. Mann said that Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton's press secretary, was predicting "a full-blown P.R. disaster-scandal" for Bush by the weekend and that Clinton FEMA chief James Lee Witt was offering to help Blanco. Witt was hired the next day.
With all that in the background, by the night of Sept. 2, relations between the Bush and Blanco teams were tense. At 11:20 p.m., Blanco received a fax from the White House asking that she sign a letter requesting a federal takeover. Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said the president planned a news conference to announce the changes the next morning.
At 8:56 a.m., just before Bush stepped onto the White House lawn, Blanco called Card and aides faxed a rejection letter.
The president did not mention the dispute with Blanco in his remarks, and deployed troops using existing command structures.
Blanco aides remained convinced that the White House was trying to take credit for a situation in New Orleans that had by then improved. In hindsight, Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said, the lesson to states is that they must be ready to take care of themselves and "not rely on anyone else."
But Vitter took another lesson, saying that in catastrophic incidents the legal and practical problems of calling in active-duty military must be straightened out "so people don't mess around for three days and then come to some understanding, which is what essentially happened here."