This Is 'Fully Prepared'?

Protest was an element in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.
Protest was an element in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 3, 2006

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

George W. Bush said those words to Diane Sawyer last Sept. 1, when desperate people in flooded New Orleans were still being rescued from their roofs. Now we know that just four days earlier, in a videoconference briefing, one of the nation's leading hurricane experts had explicitly warned that failure of the protective levees was "a very, very grave concern."

We also know that in his final briefing before Hurricane Katrina hit, the president did not ask a single question. He did, however, reassure local officials that help would soon be on the way. "I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared," Bush said.

Given what happened over the following week, all I can say is: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

At least now I know why the White House is so obsessively secretive about its decision-making process. The leaked videotapes and transcripts of pre-Katrina briefings that were obtained this week by the Associated Press leave in tatters the defining myth of the Bush administration -- an undeserved aura of cool, unflinching competence and steely resolve. Instead, the tapes show bureaucratic inertia and a president for whom delegation seems to mean detachment.

The briefings were held as satellite photos showed monstrous Katrina practically filling the whole Gulf of Mexico, and there was nothing that could have been done to save the Gulf Coast from a terrible blow. However, there was much that could have been done to organize and support evacuation, rescue and relief efforts. The federal government had learned, for example, that local officials in Louisiana had mounted no effective effort to evacuate people from institutions -- hospitals, prisons, schools. Yet the federal response was essentially a shrug.

What we didn't know before these tapes came out is how specifically the president had been warned of the impending disaster, in all its particulars. The story was foretold days before the hurricane made landfall.

The hapless Michael Brown proved to be a disaster as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but in the days before Katrina hit he did a pretty good job of sounding the alarm. His hair was on fire as he tried to get his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and the White House to pay attention and absorb the fact that this was the "big one."

The president was attending the briefings via secure video from his ranch in Crawford, Tex. After hearing what he heard, how could he have told anyone the federal government was "fully prepared" to help? And how on earth could he have said days later that no one thought the New Orleans levees might fail?

In a way, I'd worry less if I thought the president were being intentionally duplicitous. But I worry that somehow he didn't fully take in the reality of the situation, let alone its gravity. His response was to sign all the right pieces of paper and then reassure others, and perhaps himself, that everything was under control when it should have been obvious that nothing was under control.

The day after his claim about no one anticipating the failure of the levees, when the federal response was still a chaotic and ineffectual mess, Bush uttered the immortal line to his foundering FEMA director: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Did he really believe that?

A chief executive who isolates himself from bad news is one thing. A chief executive who hears bad news, in detail, and then plays it back as "heck of a job" is something else.

Is there a pattern here? President Bush surely sees, as we all see, that Iraq is in danger of falling into the abyss of sectarian civil war. He must realize that he got bad advice and tried to occupy the country with too few troops, making calamitous mistakes along the way. He surely sees the continuing violence in Afghanistan as the Taliban tries to regroup across the border in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding. But he doesn't seem to really grapple with the bad news from the multi-front "war on terrorism" he has launched, preferring to acknowledge only the spread of democratic institutions.

Some in the administration are now calling it "the long war," which indicates no end in sight.

Oh, and health authorities agree that it's just a matter of time before the avian flu pandemic reaches U.S. shores. The administration says the government is prepared to provide all necessary help to local officials.

Be very afraid.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company