09/06/2007 02:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Katrina Coverup: How Tim Russert's Interview Served the Republican Party Line

Tim Russert knew exactly what he was doing. His producers and staff scoured public records and news reports to prepare for the Sunday morning broadcast. The format itself left almost nothing to chance. And the opening segment on the Meet the Press for February 19, 2006 came off exactly as planned. Michael Chertoff was given a platform to defend his record on Katrina without facing a single question about his own performance.

Thanks to Russert, NBC's viewers were left with two false impressions that served the Republican Party line: While "mistakes were made," no single individual is directly blameworthy, except "the buck stops with Mike Brown."

Russert's approach is obvious when you compare his questions with those posed by Wolf Blitzer and George Stephanopoulos to the same person on the same morning. Essentially, Russert used three standard interview tricks. They were:

•Non-sequitur questions: Russert would preface a question with a longwinded quotation that directly criticized Chertoff, but then asked a question that required no response to the cited criticism.
•Questions guaranteed to yield no useful information whatsoever: Those are questions about career plans, personnel changes and personal feelings.
•Questions premised on a Republican talking point, which was: "It's Mike Brown's fault."

And of course there were the standard generic softball open-ended questions that any public figure can deflect. Questions like: "How does that happen?" or "Was it an attempt to spin the American people?"

While Russert's servility to the White House stands out, many others in the Washington press corps remain willing to give the Chertoff a free ride. Consider the "The Perseverance of Michael Chertoff," published in Time last June. "Every time DHS fails, Chertoff emerges unscathed, " wrote Brian Bennett, who followed up rhetorically, "But how does he do it? For one thing, he is not short on perseverance." For another thing, Chertoff benefited from Administration stonewalling. The White House has refused to disclose any records of communications to and from Michael Chertoff during the Katrina crisis. And then Chertoff benefited from Time's willingness to ignore that stonewalling.

Russert's interview remains timely because it shows how the conventional wisdom -- that mainstream media totally redeemed itself by its coverage of Katrina -- is wrong. The White House manipulated the facts on Katrina and major news outlets fell for the scam, just as they fell for the scam on WMD in Iraq. In the excerpted interviews below, you'll see how Russert promoted the scam, and how Wolf Blitzer and George Stephanopoulos failed to challenge the lies told by Michael Chertoff who, by himself alone, caused the death of 1,000+ Americans.

Russert"s Sham Interview: February 19, 2006

But back to Russert's interview, which should be taught as a case study in journalism schools. First, a brief explanation of some truisms known by Russert and everyone else in television news. During live broadcasts, there are tough questions, softball questions and questions guaranteed to yield no useful information whatsoever. Questions from the third category are generally used as cute little closers, as in, "Finally, Senator Clinton, have you made a decision about whether you will run for the Presidency in 2008?" No one who ever asked that question ever thought there was a chance in hell that she might answer, "Yes." It's common knowledge that no political figure ever discloses a career move or a personnel decision in that type of impromptu format. Another type of worthless question is one that asks about feelings. No political figure ever talks about his own feelings to a news reporter except in a way that is totally self serving.

So no serious journalist would ever open an interview with that type of question because it wastes valuable time that could be otherwise used to yield useful information. This touches another truism about political interviews. The political figure always embellishes his response -- irrespective of whether he answers the question -- with canned sound bites used to run up the clock. George Bush even goes further, using extended pregnant pauses mid-sentence to blur the disconnect between the question and the response. It's what they call staying on message.

Here's how Russert opened the interview:

MR. RUSSERT: Welcome, Secretary Michael Chertoff.

SEC'Y MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be here, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: What a week for you, hearings before the Senate and reports from House Republicans. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the local paper down there, editorialized this: "Katrina was a disaster that had long been feared. The House report, then, is on target when it says that September 11 was a failure of imagination, but Katrina was a failure of initiative and leadership. Those who are responsible should be held accountable. Firing FEMA's Michael Brown was a start. But FEMA was under the Department of Homeland Security--Michael Chertoff's department. The House report concludes that he fulfilled his responsibilities 'late, ineffectively, or not at all.' If that's not grounds for dismissal, what is?" Have you ever considered stepping down?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, you know, like everybody else who is serving in the Cabinet, I serve at the pleasure of the president. And when I took the job, I knew that we had a lot of work to do to mature the department, and I was aware of the fact that something might happen, whether it was a manmade or a terrorist event, before we had a chance to finish the building. So I can't say I had my eyes closed about the challenge in the job. I continue to serve at the pleasure of the president. I think my responsibility is to try to fix the department. And as long as the president wants me to do that, I'm going to continue to stay on the job.

MR. RUSSERT: You haven't had any conversations with his staff about moving on?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, you know, I don't normally talk about conversations with the president or the senior staff. But the president knows that I am there as long as he wants and needs me, and I will work 24/7 to make this department as good as it can be.

"Have you ever considered stepping down?" Is there anyone who ever watched a Sunday morning talk show, or an episode of The West Wing, who didn't already know that Chertoff's answer was "I serve at the pleasure of the president."? No. Was there anyone who saw that Meet the Press interview who learned anything about how or why Chertoff fulfilled his responsibilities "late, ineffectively, or not at all.' No.

Next question...

MR. RUSSERT: Senate Joe Lieberman of Connecticut at the hearing said this: "Our conclusion is that the Department of Homeland Security had a responsibility to lead the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina, and let us down. We've invested billions of dollars in the department. It had the capabilities to prepare for and respond to Katrina, and it didn't use them. As a result, a lot of people suffered and, unfortunately, a lot of people died." Does that haunt you?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: It does haunt me because what--it's not the criticism. Because, obviously, some of the criticism is obviously helpful. Some of it I don't agree with. But what does stick with me is the image of people who unnecessarily suffered because of delays in getting them evacuated. There was some tremendous success stories. I actually was very worried the first couple of days about rescues. I was worried, how were you going to get thousands and tens of thousands of people who are trapped in attics out of those attics? And there the Coast Guard and other parts of the department performed magnificently. But in the evacuation, I think we really fell short. And that's certainly something which I will always carry with me and something which I'm determined to fix, particularly as we come into hurricane season this year, which is just a hundred days away.

Russert didn't ask, "Why weren't you leading?" He asked if Chertoff was haunted by Joe Lieberman's remark. Russert's interview kept going on...

MR. RUSSERT: When you were last on, a few days after the hurricane began, you said that the levees were breached early Tuesday morning. We now learn that in fact it was around Monday morning at 8:30 that people were first notified the levees had breached. Why were you out of the loop?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, actually, I think what I said is that they'd been breached over night, Monday night. And we now know the levees began to be breached Monday morning. I think that the principle levee breach, 17th Street, we still haven't pinpointed the exact time of the breach.
This was really the biggest failure, I think, of the department in Katrina was the inability to get ground troops from New Orleans. The fact that we didn't have assets on the ground, trained people, proper equipment, to immediately send back messages about what was going on. And that's one thing we have already begun to fix. We've trained and recruited law enforcement personnel. We are acquiring the kinds of very sophisticated satellite gear that let us beam things directly back to headquarters. We've got better aerial assets, and we're integrating better with the military in terms of things like satellite capability and overflying P3s and other kinds of aircraft.

MR. RUSSERT: But FEMA knew on Monday morning that a levee had been breached. I was somewhat taken back by this testimony from Michael Brown before the Senate. "Question: You're telling us that a conversation directly with Secretary Chertoff would not have produced any kind of worthwhile results? Brown: No, it would have wasted my time."

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: I think that was a big mistake on Mike Brown's part. ...

There, in a nutshell, is the dishonest story that Russert and Chertoff promote in tandem. During his prior appearance on Meet the Press, Chertoff lied about the point in time when the levee breech became common knowledge. Because Russert misquoted that earlier lie, Chertoff was able to deflect. This time, Russert deceived NBC viewers by saying, in effect, that the fault lay with Mike Brown, whose organization knew of the levee breech and who deliberately failed to tell his boss, who could have taken action. And Chertoff compounded the deception by insinuating that " The fact that we didn't have assets on the ground, trained people, proper equipment, to immediately send back messages about what was going on," was a failure of "the department." That failure was caused by only one person, Michael Chertoff, and the responsibility can be shared with no one else.

You can read the rest of the interview and search in vain for a tough question on Katrina. Just a lot more of:

MR. RUSSERT: The president is saying he's doing a heck of a job; the night before, you're saying, "I don't think the guy's up to it." Why didn't you tell the president?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, again, I never get into conversations with the president.

Wow. I'll bet he never saw that answer coming.

Blitzer and Stephanopolous: How Real Journalists Do It

Wolf Blitzer and George Stephanopoulos asked questions aimed at making Chertoff account for his own actions during and after the Katrina crisis.

Here are some questions from Blitzer:

BLITZER: Here is another conclusion from the House of Representatives report: "It does not appear the president received adequate advice and counsel from a senior disaster professional. The president's homeland security team did not effectively substantiate, analyze and act on the information at its disposal." You agree with that?

CHERTOFF: Well, I think first of all there was a failure to have real, clear information at our disposal. There was a real lack of situational awareness. We didn't have the capabilities on the ground to give us real-time, accurate assessments of the physical condition of the city.

BLITZER: But you knew that for days, that this hurricane was coming towards New Orleans.

CHERTOFF: Wolf, putting these capabilities together is not a matter of putting them together in a few days. It's a matter of planning and preparing for months.

BLITZER: But there has been these tabletop exercises. There was this fictional Hurricane Pam a year earlier in which they basically outlined all of these dire consequences that nobody seems to have paid any attention to.


CHERTOFF: We staged about 10,000 -- not trailers, mobile homes. Trailers are actually -- there are tens of thousands of trailers right now being occupied by the people in the Gulf Coast. There are about 10,000 mobile homes in this field in Hope.

BLITZER: At a cost of, what, $300 million?

CHERTOFF: Well, that's the purchase price. ...

BLITZER: Why aren't they being used right now? There are so many homeless people who are being evicted from hotels and being told, you know, "You're on your own," basically.

Unfortunately, the transcript for the ABC's This Week, on February 19, 2006 is not freely available to the public. A few questions, listed below, are numbered, to give a sense of where they came in the interview. Because Stephanopoulos tried to smoke him out, after Question 8, Chertoff felt compelled to lie.

1. The House Committee looking into the Katrina response concluded this week that the response was a national failure. Do you accept that conclusion?

2. "There is a quarter-mile breach in the levee near the 17th Street Canal about 200 yards from Lake Ponchartrain, allowing water to flow into the city," "an estimated two-thirds to 75% of the city is underwater." You didn't receive that report until the next morning. Why not?

4. And that was one of many that came in during the day, talking about possible breaches. Had you known at 10:30 that night, yes, this is a, this is a real report, the levees had been breached, wouldn't you be able to, been able to evacuating the city much earlier?

5. How could you not have thought about it?

8. STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, it wasn't just Mr. Brown who's criticized you. Senator Collins said you appeared detached in your response. And the House Committee called your response late -- you responded late, ineffectively, or not at all. How do you respond to that criticism?

CHERTOFF: Of course, it's a little bit in contrast with Michael Brown who said I was over-involved with him. I think the weekend before, we all knew this was a big catastrophe. The president declared an emergency, that was a critical legal thing that opened the door to moving everything into the area where it had to be staged.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Some have said not an incident of national significance, and they believe that was significant.

CHERTOFF: (inaudible) I actually brought the plan in question -- the plan specifically says that all presidentially-declared emergencies are considered incidents of national significance. So there was no need for me to sign an additional piece of paper. The president's order accomplished all that, but the Sunday before I sat down in a video conference and I listened to each of the managers in the field very carefully go over all the list of preparations that had been made and at the end of that I said, I asked two questions, I said, is there anything that you need from our department that you haven't gotten because I will get it to you and the answer I got was we have everything that we need and we are working with all the components and then I asked a second question, I said, have you reached out to the Department of Defense, do you have what you need from them? Because I anticipated we might need some additional resources. And there was someone from DOD sitting in the room, I could see him on the, on the video conference, Michael Brown said we're here, we're working together, we're fully engaged, and we have what we need. So I certainly went into this, not trying to second-guess or micromanage the experienced operators at FEMA, but with a very clear sense that I wanted to be assured everything had focused on the critical elements of preparation. Now, it turns out that obviously we didn't get done what needed to be done and the question from me is, what are the elements of preparation? What are the elements of training? What are the elements of building capabilities that we have to get in place for this coming hurricane season which is only 100 days away?

The part about "the plan specifically says that all presidentially-declared emergencies are considered incidents of national significance," is correct. Everything that followed is either a lie or fraudulent.

Here's the public record that anyone can read but few choose to acknowledge:

Saturday August 27, 2005, the President declared an emergency in Louisiana under under Title V of the Stafford Act, and ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response, in parishes located in the path of Katrina.

"The President today declared an emergency exists in the State of Louisiana and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts in the parishes located in the path of Hurricane Katrina beginning on August 26, 2005, and continuing."

Contrary to what the Republicans insinuated, there was never ever ambiguity over whether New Orleans should have received Federal aid before Katrina made landfall.

So the President declared an emergency . Then what happens? Nothing much, until Chertoff takes the appropriate action. Every possible responder had signed on to, and was prepared to follow, the National Response Plan. They all knew how and from whom they would receive notice and directions from one communications center.

"Under the National Response Plan, the DHS Secretary [not the FEMA Director, not the President] is the federal official charged with declaring an Incident of National Significance."

According to the National Response Plan,

"When the Secretary declares an Incident of National Significance, Federal departments and agencies are notified by the HSOC [Homeland Security Operations Center]..."

"The HSOC is the primary national hub for domestic incident management operational coordination and situational awareness. The HSOC is a standing 24/7 interagency organization fusing law enforcement, national intelligence, emergency response, and privatesector
reporting. The HSOC facilitates homeland security information-sharing and operational
coordination with other Federal, State, local, tribal, and nongovernmental EOCs [Emergency Operations Centers]."

"The HSOC includes representatives from:

■ Department of Agriculture*
■ Department of Commerce
■ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
■ Department of Defense
■ Department of Energy
■ Department of Health and Human Services
■ Department of Homeland Security
■ Border and Transportation Security
■ Customs and Border Protection
■ Emergency Preparedness and Response/Federal
Emergency Management Agency
■ Federal Protective Service
■ Immigration and Customs Enforcement
■ Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection
■ Office of the National Capital Region Coordination
■ Office of State and Local Government Coordination
and Preparedness
■ Public Affairs
■ Science and Technology
■ Transportation Security Administration
■ U.S. Coast Guard
■ U.S. Secret Service
■ Department of the Interior
■ Department of Justice
■ Bureau of Alcohol,Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
■ Drug Enforcement Agency
■ Federal Bureau of Investigation
■ U.S. Marshals Service
■ Department of Labor*
■ Department of State
■ Department of Transportation*
■ Federal Aviation Administration*
■ Department of Veterans Affairs
■ Central Intelligence Agency
■ Environmental Protection Agency
■ Nuclear Regulatory Commission*
■ Office of Personnel Management
■ U.S. Postal Service
■ American Red Cross*
■ State and local law enforcement
* Staffing from these entities is situation dependent."

In other words, the entire country's resources were at Chertoff's disposal as soon as he declared an Incident of National Significance. The DHS Secretary lied when he told Stephanopoulos, "So there was no need for me to sign an additional piece of paper. The president's order accomplished all that."

Virtually every snafu was caused by Chertoff's refusal to declare an incident of national significance. Remember, any large mobilization requires respect for the chain of command, so officers are loathe to act before they are given orders. Take, for example, the USS Bataan, with its helicopters, doctors, 600-bed hospital, 6 operating rooms, food and water (including the ability to make its own water at 100,000 gallons each day). The morning after Katrina hit New Orleans, it sat out in the Gulf of Mexico waiting for relief orders.

And two years after the fact, mainstream media shows scant interest in connecting the dots that lead to the cause of all those response failures. Instead, it produces valentines like this one from US News and World Report, "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Michael Chertoff." Does anyone else want to add to that list?