KATRINA REVISITED…. I’m reluctant to highlight just one anecdote from Robert Draper’s GQ piece on Donald Rumsfeld, because there’s an awful lot of information in the article that deserves to be read, but the story about Rumsfeld during the Hurricane Katrina crisis is remarkable.
As Draper explained, there were search-and-rescue helicopters available for New Orleans, but Rumsfeld refused to approve their deployment, despite the belief from the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina that they were needed.
[T]hree years later, when I asked a top White House official how he would characterize Rumsfeld’s assistance in the response to Hurricane Katrina, I found out why. “It was commonly known in the West Wing that there was a battle with Rumsfeld regarding this,” said the official. “I can’t imagine another defense secretary throwing up the kinds of obstacles he did.”
Though various military bases had been mobilized into a state of alert well before the advance team’s tour, Rumsfeld’s aversion to using active-duty troops was evident: “There’s no doubt in my mind,” says one of Bush’s close advisers today, “that Rumsfeld didn’t like the concept.”
The next day, three days after landfall, word of disorder in New Orleans had reached a fever pitch. According to sources familiar with the conversation, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff called Rumsfeld that morning and said, “You’re going to need several thousand troops.”
“Well, I disagree,” said the SecDef. “And I’m going to tell the president we don’t need any more than the National Guard.”
After the president had returned to the White House, he eventually convened a meeting in the Situation Room to discuss the government’s response. Bush barked, “Rumsfeld, what the hell is going on there? Are you watching what’s on television? Is that the United States of America or some Third World nation I’m watching? What the hell are you doing?”
When Rumsfeld mentioned his concerns about “unity of command” issues, Bush stopped talking to his Defense Secretary and directed all inquiries to Lieutenant General Honore, via video screen, who was on the ground in Louisiana.
But still the troops hadn’t arrived. And by Saturday morning, says HonorÃ©, “we had dispersed all of these people across Louisiana. So we needed more troops to go to distribution centers, feed people, and maintain traffic.” That morning Bush convened yet another meeting in the Situation Room. Chertoff was emphatic. “Mr. President,” he said, “if we’re not going to begin to get these troops, we’re not going to be able to get the job done.”
Rumsfeld could see the writing on the wall and had come prepared with a deployment plan in hand. Still, he did not volunteer it. Only when Bush ordered, “Don, do it,” did he acquiesce and send in the troops — a full five days after landfall.
And here I thought Rumsfeld was a nightmare at the Pentagon before reading the Draper piece.