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?
A: No, I think, again, that might be one to direct to FEMA on the ground or the Department of Homeland Security here in Washington.
Q: Have you considered making a request for international aid?
A: Again, this is something that is probably a question best directed to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q: Do you know anything about how small towns are being responded to versus the larger communities?
A: I think those are operational details that probably are best provided . . . by FEMA or . . . by the Department of Homeland Security.
Eventually, ABC News's Jessica Yellin protested: "Message boards on the Internet are going crazy. They're frustrated that you're deflecting this to FEMA. Is the White House properly, adequately concerned?"
"Deflecting what to FEMA?" McClellan asked.
With each hot potato passed Chertoff's way, McClellan was suggesting the homeland security secretary would be the one to blame if recovery efforts don't go well. The spokesman also said questions about pre-storm preparations were off-limits. The Washington Post's Peter Baker asked if there "is any second-guessing" because people long knew about New Orleans's vulnerability.
"This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics," came McClellan's reply.
The New York Times's Dick Stevenson tried again: "Would you concede . . . that more could have or should have been done?"
McClellan would not concede anything. "There'll be a time for politics later," he said.
The White House briefing ended at 1:11, leaving reporters just enough time to reach the Chertoff briefing by 1:30. But DHS officials, turning the reporters away, said they did not care that McClellan had sent them. "The White House didn't coordinate the briefing times," one said.
Inside, Chertoff, joined by other top officials, were busy contradicting McClellan. "This is not, as it has been erroneously reported, martial law," Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum of the National Guard said. On Wednesday, McClellan had told reporters: "As you're all aware, martial law has been declared in Mississippi and Louisiana."
The latecomers arrived just as the session was ending. But when McClellan's name was invoked, Chertoff agreed to provide some of the promised specifics. Costs so far have been "over a couple of billion" dollars, he said. The government is weighing offers of help from Canada, Germany and Britain. And, he said, there are 20,000 to 30,000 people in the evacuation process.
"Ultimately," Chertoff said, "we're talking about dislocations of hundreds of thousands of people. And that will be a challenge for this country on a par with some of the great tragedies we've seen overseas."
It was, at last, a straight answer.