DHS selling Bullshit; CNN not Buying

by Kieran Healy on September 3, 2005

CNN reports, in uncharacteristically blunt terms on Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s efforts to exonerate his agency.

Defending the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur.

But in fact, government officials, scientists and journalists have warned of such a scenario for years. … He called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise.” But engineers say the levees preventing this below-sea-level city from being turned into a swamp were built to withstand only Category 3 hurricanes. And officials have warned for years that a Category 4 could cause the levees to fail.

They don’t let up, either:

[Chertoff] added: “There will be plenty of time to go back and say we should hypothesize evermore apocalyptic combinations of catastrophes. Be that as it may, I’m telling you … the planners … were confronted with a second wave that they did not have built into the plan” … But New Orleans, state and federal officials have long painted a very different picture.

Good for them. Chertoff is simply misleading the public when he says the disaster was not forseeable. This sort of reporting connects back to the political questions that will become more prominent as—one hopes—the Federal and local authorities continue to get things under control and figure out ways of humanely managing the needs of thousands of displaced Americans.

In a bitter post last night, Jim Henley said that, like September 11th, so far the disaster has “chiefly served to confirm people in their previously held views.”

Liberals proclaim it proof of the need for a robust federal government … conservatives find themselves confirmed in their belief in the overriding importance of social order vigorously enforced, and libertarians regard the disaster and its aftermath as an exemplary failure of government. … Environmentalists amaze themselves with the realization that Katrina proves we need cars with better gas mileage and religious nuts of all persuasions discern the hand of God … Hooray! Everyone wins! Again!

There’s a lot to this, I suppose, just as the 9/11 attacks let everyone explain Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics. But maybe Jim is being too cynical. We should be able to separate the question of how to avoid this kind of nightmare in the future from the narrower, more immediate acknowledgment that there was a huge organizational failure. The former might end up being a debate of the sort Jim describes, but many political debates are like that. Agreement on the latter ought to be straightforward. Yet widespread and forthright agreement about it still seems like an achievement given the state of the American public sphere. Sure, FEMA and Chertoff are claiming there was nothing they could have done, and some loyal footsoldiers are saying that, appearances notwithstanding, “New Orleans and its residents owe the President a profound debt of gratitude.” But the dominant reaction across the political spectrum is that this was a gigantic, avoidable clusterfuck, and the reporting from the likes of CNN and Fox (of all places) forthrightly confirms this.

Disagreement about what the Administration could or should have foreseen about the September 11th attacks and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq was politicized from the get-go, and most of it has been played by the media in the “he said/she said” format we all know and loathe. But there’s evidence that this time, the starting point for the debate will be the correct one—namely, that a disaster like this was clearly foreseen and should have been handled much better, full stop. Where you go from there is, inevitably, going to be tinged by the tendency to think “this event confirms my politics,” and so maybe Jim is right to roll his eyes. But even to have this as a starting point still seems better than nothing. I think I really need to believe this. Frankly, if the Administration can successfully sell people on the idea that that the President’s actions were prompt and appropriate, that federal and state government agencies did what they could, and that the fault was not in themselves but in their stars (or maybe a few low-ranking FEMA bad apples) … well, I don’t know what to say.

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RoyalTS » Blog Archive » Wise words
09.04.05 at 9:26 am

{ 21 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 09.03.05 at 9:27 pm

I know what to say: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

2

jonathan 09.03.05 at 9:31 pm

…well, then this administration rules as fascist country calles the U.S.A.

3

jonathan 09.03.05 at 9:33 pm

You can almost feel the air clean of lies and misconceptions…
I just saw Magic Johnson on CNN. Larry let him talk and he said magical words:

9/11 showed the response. everythin worked, because there was a plan. Now, with a million people to help, there is will, there is money, etc….but where is the plan?!

4

russell 09.03.05 at 9:48 pm

Chertoff has been insinuating that the hurricane and the subsequent breaking of the levees were somehow independent events, and that the simultaneous occurrence of both was unforeseeable, just like the simultaneous occurrence of a hurricane and an atomic bomb. This is patently ridiculous, and utterly disingenuous. Mr. Chertoff would look much better if he admitted, without any stupid excuses, that federal planning was indecorously bad.

A simple lesson one for Mr. Chertoff’s successor: the moment an order is issued to evacuate a city, the National Guard ought to be put on immediate alert to be deployed. Period.

5

Omnipotent Poobah 09.03.05 at 10:06 pm

I am sickened by the monumental mess this administration has made of this. Did you hear my favorite quote of the news conference? He said, “nature was unhelpful” (http://omnipotentpoobah.blogspot.com/2005/09/chertoff-nature-was-unhelpful.html).

I guess Shrub ascribes to that old management maxim. “Never hire anyone smarter than you.” The part I can’t figure out is where he keeps finding people who are dumber.

6

P O'Neill 09.03.05 at 10:25 pm

Chertoff saw Condi get away with “nobody could have foreseen hijacked planes as weapons” 2 months after she came from back from the Genoa G8 summit where that exact scenario was in the Italian contingency plan, and about 6 years after everyone in the world saw that scenario in Executive Decision. Of course Chertoff is not the anointed media saint that Condi is so maybe he’s been over-optimistic.

7

rollo 09.03.05 at 10:25 pm

When someone who clearly has enough intelligence to monitor the nuances of their own public speech and see its patent absurdity it invites paranoia – as Russell points out, Chertoff is saying the hurricane and the flooding were exceptional and unrelated events whose simultaneity left the responsible agencies unable to do much of anything for six days.
The phrase “one-two punch” was used and repeated.
This must explain Chertoff’s invisibility for the week. The normally complacence-inducing Chris Matthews mentioned Tom Ridge, first Secretary of Homeland Security, who would have been down there somewhere “putting a face on it”.
Au contraire, the head of Homeland Security was nowhere visible during the early days of the most significant national disaster in US history so far.

8

Jim Harrison 09.03.05 at 10:36 pm

It’s news to me that anybody politicized 9/11. With the exception of a few despised pacifists and lefties, both the Republicans and the Democrats lined up behind Bush despite the fact that the one obvious fact was that he hadn’t prevented a national tragedy. We were just too frightened to use our critical faculties. Hence the absurd notion that Bush acted well in the aftermath of the disaster when he did a few obvious PR things and then proceeded to bungle ever single step afterwards by letting Bin Laden escape in Afghanistan, screwing up America’s public finances to pay off his friends, conducting a war that was as irrelevant to vital national purposes as it was illegal by international law, and utterly ignoring the looming oil price crisis.

In a rational world, we’d figure out how to make an example of Bush and his whole crew so as to discourage future administrations from acting in a similarly negligent fashion.

9

Ian Whitchurch 09.03.05 at 10:36 pm

Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance

Ian Whitchurch

10

Offshore Pundit 09.04.05 at 3:23 am

Jim Harrison – I suggest you read Tuchman’s “March of Folly”. Some governments are incapable of acting rationally.

11

derek 09.04.05 at 3:50 am

Sadly, CNN is in this article going along with something I’ve started noticing in the wingnuts talking points: Chertoff and Brown identifying themselves as FEMA, falsely claiming that FEMA didn’t anticipate the disaster, then etting FEMA take the heat for being a “useless government agency”.

I may have missed it, but all of CNN’s contradictions to Chertoff’s claim are from non-FEMA sources, leaving the reader to conclude that FEMA didn’t see this coming. They did. It’s the Republican appointees parachuted in to be their bosses who didn’t pay attention, and the appointees are going to try to blame that on the people who worked for them.

12

John Isbell 09.04.05 at 8:42 am

Good point, Derek.

13

Procrastinator 09.04.05 at 9:30 am

Chertoff is also the man who said there were adequate disaster plans, but these were “hampered by the flooding”.

14

abb1 09.04.05 at 10:03 am

Of course Chertoff is not the anointed media saint that Condi is so maybe he’s been over-optimistic.

He is Jewish, though. Calling him a liar would border on anti-Semitism (or self-hatred).

15

Jim Harrison 09.04.05 at 11:43 am

Chertoff’s character was revealed during the Whitewater hearings. As the majority counsel, he conducted highly partisan interrogations asking long series of questions whose premises he knew to be false. Watching him on televisiion, I remember thinking that this is what Roy Cohn must have been like.

16

Randy Paul 09.04.05 at 11:56 am

Abb1,

Let’s just stick to the fact that Chertoff means devil in Russian and leave it at that.

17

jonathan 09.04.05 at 2:14 pm

There is nothing wrong with anti-semitism, as long as it is directed at one person, which just makes it justified hate, in stead of “anti-semitism”.

But this guy is minister and still stays in power?

18

Fergal 09.04.05 at 2:37 pm

He is Jewish, though

Ah, yes, trust Abb1 to get that on record. (Is that better or worse than “zionist”?) And, what about you Abb1? Can we have your ethnic and/or religious identification… just for the record and purposes of irony, of course? (Full disclosure: I’m a self-loving Irish atheist.)

19

Thomas 09.04.05 at 9:09 pm

Chertoff is also one of the smartest people in DC (at least, he’s one of the smartest in the way that people at CT are smart, which, considering the evidence of the last week here, may not mean as much as it used to). Go read isthatlegal.org for the views of someone who knows him a bit.

russell, this may surprise you, especially if you are dumb enough to get your news from a tv camera, but the flooding and the hurricane were, in a very real sense, two separate events. If the hurricane had directly hit NO and then the levees broke in NO, that would have been a much simpler event to respond to. As it was, the storm hit Mississippi directly, and the most extensive damage from the storm surge is in Mississippi and Alabama, not in Louisiana. Only the next day–perhaps after resources were shifted because of what was then known about the most severe impact of the storm (I say perhaps because, unlike, say Kieran (aka “the Mark Steyn of the left, but without the verve”), we really don’t know what happened. But sentence first, trial later.)–did the levees break.

20

Sumana 09.05.05 at 1:44 am

“Chyort” is Russian for “devil.” As in “k chyortu!” for “To the devil!”

21

dale 09.05.05 at 2:44 am

russell (comment 4, above): look up the status of the local national guard, their current deployment, and, specifically, the deployment of their equipment and logistics.

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