Caught on Tape

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 2, 2006 12:51 PM

A newly leaked video from Aug. 28 shows President Bush sitting passively as he is briefed on the killer storm heading directly for the Gulf Coast. Senior officials voice dire predictions including the distinct possibility of severe flooding in New Orleans.

He asks no questions. And when he spoke it was to offer what turned out be unfounded assurances:

"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever assets and resources we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property, and we pray for no loss of life, of course."

But the fraudulence of Bush's words, of course, was caught on tape as well, in the now-familiar but still searing images of thousands of New Orleans residents stranded for days on rooftops or hellish disaster shelters. Not to mention those who died waiting for help that never came.

The tape, obtained by the Associated Press, clearly contradicts what Bush said three days later to ABC's Diane Sawyer, who was pressing him to explain the slow pace of rescue efforts.

Sawyer: "Mr. President, this morning, as we speak . . . there are people with signs saying 'Help, come get me'. People still in the attic, waving. Nurses are phoning in saying the situation in hospitals is getting ever more dire and the nurses are getting sick because of no clean water. Some of the things they asked our correspondents to ask you is: They expected -- they say to us -- that the day after this hurricane that there would be a massive and visible armada of federal support. There would be boats coming in. There would be food. There would be water. It would be there within hours. They wondered: What's taking so long?"

Bush's response, in part: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."

Bush told reporters two weeks later that he had been misunderstood. During a visit to New Orleans, he said: "[W]hat I was referring to is this. When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, whew. There was a sense of relaxation, and that's what I was referring to. And I, myself, thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people, probably over the airways, say, the bullet has been dodged. And that was what I was referring to.

"Of course, there were plans in case the levee had been breached. There was a sense of relaxation in the moment, a critical moment. And thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that."

Nevertheless, Bush's quote about not anticipating the breach has become a symbol of his lackluster response to the hurricane.

Even a report from House Republicans recently found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because he alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.

Apparently as a rejoinder to the new video, the White House yesterday suddenly sent around a transcript that it previously said didn't exist, from a conference call on the following day. It includes a second-hand account of Bush's activities from Michael Brown, the Bush-appointed FEMA director who later resigned in disgrace, describing the president as engaged, watching TV and asking questions.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said this yesterday: "I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing. He received multiple briefings from multiple officials, and he was completely engaged at all times."

But where, then, is the first-hand evidence of this engagement? Where is the evidence of Bush's leadership?

The government's response to Hurricane Katrina was (and continues to be) a massive failure. The new videotape offers a visceral illustration of how some, if not a lot of the blame, lay in a leader who saw his job as expressing unjustified confidence and making empty promises, rather than taking action to make sure his people were safe.

Hurricane Katrina (as I wrote as early as Aug. 31) was the second great challenge of Bush's presidency.

Which inevitably makes me think of how Bush responded, in a moment also "caught on tape," to his first. After finding out that the nation was under attack on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush remained frozen in his seat in a Florida classroom for seven minutes.

The grainy video from that classroom, a hallmark of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," can be found at The Memory Hole.

A staff report from the 9/11 commission described that morning:

"The President was seated in a classroom of second graders when, at approximately 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis."

But even after he left the classroom, he didn't call the Pentagon. He didn't ask if there were other aircraft hijacked or missing. Instead, he and his staff worked on a statement to the press.

Faced with challenges like these -- an attack on our nation or a natural disaster bearing down on our shores -- we can reasonably expect that our presidents will stand up, demand answers and options, and lead.

If the White House insists that Bush did that with Hurricane Katrina, it is incumbent upon them to back up that claim up with evidence. Otherwise, the image of him mouthing platitudes threatens to become defining of his presidency.

The Imagery

Here is the video from the Associated Press, showing Bush listening in on the videoconference from Crawford, where he was on vacation. (Hosted on washingtonpost.com, the video is prefaced by an unfortunate Microsoft Office ad that starts: "10 a.m.: Out of the office, out of the loop.")

Here's a White House image, from photographer Paul Morse's angle.

The Coverage

Margaret Ebrahim and John Solomon write for the Associated Press: "On the eve of Hurricane Katrina's fateful landfall, President Bush was confident. His homeland security chief appeared relaxed. And warnings of the coming destruction -- breached or overrun levees, deaths at the New Orleans Superdome and overwhelming needs for post-storm rescues -- were delivered in dramatic terms to all involved. All of it was captured on videotape. . . .

"The president didn't ask a single question during the briefing but assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: 'We are fully prepared.'

"The footage -- along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by AP -- show in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster."

Ebrahim also writes about her interview with Brown: "President Bush remained engaged during Hurricane Katrina but was overconfident that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could handle the destructive aftermath based on its record in previous disasters, former federal disaster chief Michael Brown said Wednesday."

Nicole Gaouette writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the footage is giving new life to charges that the administration was detached and unresponsive in the face of one of the nation's worst natural disasters."

Seth Borenstein and William Douglas write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The revelation that Bush was warned in advance about Katrina's destructive power is another blow to an administration whose integrity and competence has come under fire for its response to the hurricane, the ill-fated Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, its handling of a transaction that would let a United Arab Emirates company manage cargo terminals at six major U.S. ports, and its conduct of the war in Iraq.

"'It's devastating that the president would ask no questions,' said David Gergen, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton who's now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. 'If he sat there mum in a full briefing . . . that will only confirm the suspicions of a lot of opponents.'"

Frank James writes for the Chicago Tribune: "In coming days, reporters and the public will likely want to know why the president said no one anticipated the levee breaches when some officials did? Did the president not hear that part of the briefing? Or did he knowingly say something that wasn't truthful?

"What's more, now that the video is out, making clear the president received warnings of wide-scale calamity, why did Bush remain at his ranch, then make a political swing through California and Arizona during the time the hurricane made landfall and the later flooding of New Orleans?

"Perhaps the only good news for the president is that he is in South Asia while the story is breaking. But the first chance reporters have to ask him about this in India, they will. And the fallout from the troublesome video will certainly compete with the image of an engaged president handling the weighty affairs of foreign policy he had hoped to communicate to the audience back home."

Newsweek's Mark Hosenball, a recipient of the White House's counter-leak, writes: "The vacationing President George W. Bush was 'very engaged' in monitoring Katrina developments right from the day that the hurricane made landfall, according to Michael Brown, then chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown's comments about the vacationing president surfaced in a transcript of an Aug. 29, 2005, videoconference call produced by Bush administration officials today after they initially told Congress that no such document existed."

What Bush Knew About Iraq

This just in: Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "Two highly classified intelligence reports delivered directly to President Bush before the Iraq war cast doubt on key public assertions made by the president, Vice President Cheney, and other administration officials as justifications for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, according to records and knowledgeable sources."

Going Nuclear in India

Jim VandeHei, Muneeza Naqvi and Fred Barbash write for The Washington Post: "President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh struck what both leaders called an historic agreement Thursday to provide U.S. nuclear power assistance to India in exchange for new inspections of India's civilian nuclear facilities."

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune: "The agreement spells out how India, a fast-growing economic power which never has signed an international nuclear nonproliferation treaty, will separate its civilian nuclear power-generators from a military weapons program that tested its first atomic bombs in 1976 and tested again as recently as 1998.

"This is what will make the deal between Bush and Singh a tough-sell in Congress, where critics question why they should allow an exception for India. American law prohibits the U.S. from sharing its nuclear technology with nations that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which more than 170 nations have signed, or with nations that have tested nuclear weapons."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Critics said the deal undermines the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement, which India won't sign. And they say it sends the wrong signal to leaders of North Korea and Iran, who have snubbed their noses at international calls to halt their nuclear weapons programs. . . .

"Bush said he will tell lawmakers that the U.S.-India relationship is changing for the better and that it is in the United States' interest to cooperate with India on its nuclear programs. He also said the deal could be a boon for U.S. consumers.

"'Proliferation is certainly a concern and a part of our discussions, and we've got a good faith gesture by the Indian government that I'll be able to take to the Congress,' Bush said. 'But the other thing that our Congress has got to understand -- that it's in our economic interests that India have a civilian nuclear power industry to help take the pressure off of the global demand for energy. . . . To the extent that we can reduce demand for fossil fuels, it will help the American consumer.'"

Here are the text of Bush's joint news conference with Singh, their exchange of toasts, and many more White House documents.

The Taj Mahal

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Add India's prime minister to the list of people giving President Bush a hard time for not visiting the country's famed Taj Mahal.

"As the leaders toasted each other and their nation's ties Thursday before lunch alongside several hundred guests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh briefly paused and addressed Bush's wife, Laura.

"'I am truly sorry the president is not taking you to Taj Mahal this time,' Singh said. 'I hope he will be more chivalrous next time you are here.'"

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Locals can't forget the last time an American president visited India. Back in 2000, President Clinton spent nearly a week touring the country, famously visiting rural villages and wowing Indian politicians during a speech before the Parliament. . . .

"Bush's visit this week will be speedy and meticulously coordinated. Indeed, the president won't even visit the Taj Mahal--an omission he blamed on the White House scheduler. 'If I were the scheduler, maybe I'd do things differently,' he told a group of Indian journalists last week. It's something that has puzzled the locals, at a time when Bush hopes to deepen economic and political ties with the world's largest democracy. It also frustrates his own aides, who have repeatedly pushed the president to spend time on the softer, cultural side of his foreign travel. According to those aides, it is the president -- not his scheduler -- who cannot be convinced to carve out time to respect the local culture."

Pakistan Bound

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's overnight visit to Pakistan 'is not a risk-free undertaking' but he will not be deterred by attacks like the suicide bombing that killed an American diplomat in Karachi, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Thursday.

"Bush will fly to Pakistan late Friday for a day of talks Saturday in Islamabad with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military leader who took power in a 1999 coup. Bush said his visit was an important gesture of solidarity with Musharraf in the fight against terrorism."

Port Watch

Paul Blustein writes for The Washington Post: "Members of Congress from both parties yesterday demanded the right to reject the Dubai ports deal after the Bush administration completes a 45-day investigation of the transaction, the clearest sign to date that the controversy may lead to significant changes in the system governing investment from abroad."

Agence France Presse reports: "US lawmakers were losing hope of being able to block the controversial takeover of operations at several US ports by a United Arab Emirates-owned firm, with the deal becoming final on Thursday."

Carl Hulse and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "The port deal has exploded out of nowhere to become a major bone of contention in an election year that had not lacked driving issues.

"It is not clear what kind of staying power the deal has as an issue, but for now Republicans have little choice but to acknowledge the objections they are hearing from voters, distancing themselves from Mr. Bush on national security heading toward the midterm elections."

Gwyneth K. Shaw writes in the Baltimore Sun: "A key Republican said yesterday that Treasury and Homeland Security officials privately told him the initial review of the firm planning to take over some operations at six major U.S. seaports was far less thorough than described by administration officials in later statements."

Jonathan Weisman and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration, stung by the public outcry over the Dubai port deal, has launched a national security investigation of another Dubai-owned company set to take over plants in Georgia and Connecticut that make precision components used in engines for military aircraft and tanks."

Choppy Waters

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "The Republican revolt against Bush has pointed up a pattern of fractured communications and even outright hostility from the White House toward Congress, both in GOP hands, analysts say. . . .

"But the administration's handling of the controversy also raises a larger question among some Republicans: What is going on at the White House?"

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "The man-of-few-words approach has its virtues, and they matched the moment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and, for the most part, since. Bush's deep belief in his vision of global democratization, coupled with the eloquence of speeches crafted for state occasions by Michael Gerson, carried the day. Dazed and confused and searching for old verities after the terrorist attacks, I think most Americans found some comfort in Bush the Growling Cowboy.

"That time has passed, though. The main reason of course, is that the simple, black-and-white solutions that the president sketched for us in the 'war on terror' haven't materialized."

Former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon, with a tale ostensibly from within the White House.

"[A] Republican wise man, a prominent lawyer in Washington who had served in the Reagan White House, sought no appointments or favors and was thought to be unthreatening to Bush, gained an audience with him. In a gentle tone, he explained that many presidents had difficult second terms, but that by adapting their approaches they ended successfully, as President Reagan had. Bush instantly replied with a vehement blast. He would not change. He would stay the course. He would not follow the polls. The Republican wise man tried again. Oh, no, he didn't mean anything about polls. But Bush fortified his wall of self-defensiveness and let fly with another heated riposte that he would not change."

Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes in his new blog: "A guy can get weary talking so much about the 'Bush bubble,' but how can one ignore the topic when the president keeps supplying fresh evidence of its existence?"

Polman's latest example: Bush's insistence to ABC's Elizabeth Vargas yesterday that he has "ample" political capital.

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