THE BLOG
08/27/2007 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Katrina Whitewash: Michael Chertoff Remains Incriminated by the Smoking Gun Buried in Plain Sight

"President Bush will likely nominate Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to replace Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, senior administration officials told CNN Monday." August 27, 2007

Chairman Susan Collins moved to sideline an examination into the smoking gun that incriminated Michael Chertoff. She opened the hearings by directly asking - and answering - the critical question herself. Her answer was both clever and artful; what seemed straightforward and reasonable was in fact pure nonsense.

Six days later, Chertoff testified and gave substantially the same dishonest answer. The stunt worked. To this day, the most damning evidence against Michael Chertoff remains barely acknowledged and hiding in plain sight.

In her opening statement at the Senate hearings on February 10, 2006 Susan Collins, the Republican Senator from Maine, asked and answered the question:

"The day after the storm...Secretary Chertoff named Michael Brown as the lead federal official for the response effort. At the same time, the secretary declared Hurricane Katrina an Incident of National Significance, which is the designation that triggers the National Response Plan.

"The National Response Plan, in turn, is the comprehensive national road map that guides the federal response to catastrophes.

"The secretary's action led many to the question why the Incident of National Significance declaration had not been made earlier."

"But in reality, the declaration itself was meaningless because, by the plain terms of the National Response Plan, Hurricane Katrina had become an Incident of National Significance three days earlier when the President declared an emergency in Louisiana."

Collins' logic seemed simple enough: A Presidential Emergency Declaration = an Incident of National Significance = National Response Plan is triggered. Therefore, a declaration of an Incident of National Significance was a meaningless formality. Chertoff said the same thing when Joe Lieberman asked him why the declaration was made on Tuesday August 30, instead of Saturday August 27. The DHS Secretary testified, "In truth, I didn't need to do it. I was told I didn't need to do it -- but I just did it to formalize it."

But when you translate the bureaucratic jargon back into English, Collins' assertion means something different. In effect, she said that it didn't matter that the fire chief pulled the fire alarm three days late, because, under the law, it was obvious the alarm should have been pulled three days earlier.

Contrary to what Collins implied, the National Response Plan does not rely on emergency responders to construe the statutory implications of a presidential declaration. No plan for a large mobilization ever works that way. Emergency plans always rely on clear lines of communication, on an established chain of command, and on the dissemination of straightforward, unambiguous directions.

The National Response Plan, or NRP, is no different. It is easy to understand. It preempts any question about who is in charge and who has the power to give orders and deploy resources. Once President Bush declared an emergency on August 27, 2005, 45 hours before Katrina made landfall, Chertoff had the legal obligation to declare an Incident of National Significance. That declaration would have mobilized all federal agencies, all state and local officials and all major relief agencies who had prepared to follow the agreed-upon road map. Without that declaration, people wondered who was in charge. The road map, the power to direct all federal agencies, all state and local officials and all major relief agencies resided exclusively with Michael Chertoff. It never resided with Michael Brown, until Chertoff conferred such power upon him, at the point when the disorganization became irreparable.

During the critical three days when Chertoff rejected his legal duty to activate the Plan, people in New Orleans perished. They did not die because of bureaucratic inertia, "the fog of war" or a shortage of bus drivers; those were not contributing factors to a general breakdown. They were the foreseeable consequences of one man's deliberate refusal to follow his legal obligations. The smoking gun is the NRP and Chertoff's obvious refusal to follow it.

The litany of reports and hearings on Katrina all dutifully bypassed the primary and overriding reason why New Orleans suffered 1,000+ deaths two years ago. That reason is simple, singular and straightforward. But thanks to the obfuscations of Susan Collins and other Republicans, we still hear their mantra, "There's plenty of blame to go around."

Anyone can trace the response failures that occurred before and after the levies broke, and compare them to the way things were supposed to work under the NRP. Yet this simple cause-and-effect analysis is missing or buried in the government reports on the subject. (Chertoff's failure was not "A Failure of Initiative.") The evidence shows that Chertoff's crime against humanity was cold hearted and deliberate. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Even historian Douglas Brinkley pulled his punches in The Great Deluge. Brinkley lays out the facts that incriminate Chertoff, and draws the inevitable inference, yet fails to acknowledge the magnitude of the implications. Brinkley writes:

"Under rules instituted in January 2005, Homeland Secretary was in charge of all major disasters, whether from international terrorism, Mother Nature, or infrastructure collapse. Until Chertoff designated it "an incident of national significance," and appointed someone (presum¬ably the FEMA director in the case of hurricanes) as the "principal federal official," relief would be halting at best. Without that designation, Brown could not legally take charge, giving orders to local and state officials and overseeing deployment of National Guard and other U.S. military person¬nel. 'I am having a horrible time,' Brown admitted to Chertoff in a tele¬phone conversation on Monday. 'I can't get a unified command established.'

"A stronger personality than Michael Brown might have seized com¬mand anyway. But even Brown's GOP allies knew he was weak-kneed. The question that still haunts the events of Monday, August 29, was not, however, why Michael Brown needed post-Katrina direction and so much instruction from his boss. The important question was why Chertoff was so callous, both to Brown's specific relief needs and to the apocalyptic needs of the entire Gulf Coast region. Brown tried to maneuver around Chertoff, to appeal directly to President Bush, but it was hard to get through to the White House.

[...]

"Clearly Chertoff didn't just make a mistake during the first days of Katrina--he did virtually nothing at all, which was by far the greater sin. With the hurricane approaching Louisiana and Mississippi, Chertoff never even went to his office, staying at home for the crucial forty-eight hours before landfall. Most astonishing of all, as Katrina ravaged nearly 29,000 square miles of America on Monday, Chertoff didn't even speak to Brown until 8 p.m. When CNN, Fox News, ABC News, and the rest started reporting the horrific flooding in New Orleans due to the levee breaks, Chertoff scoffed, dismissing media reports of human suffering as melodrama. With a cavalier wave of the hand, according to the Washington Post, Chertoff downplayed the bleak reports as 'rumored or exaggerated.' Worse yet, Chertoff insisted that Brown and FEMA as a whole were do¬ing an "excellent" job. Evan Thomas of Newsweek was closer to the mark when in his seminal article 'How Bush Blew It,' he declared that FEMA was 'not up to the job.'

"Chertoff 's inaction cost lives. FEMA had been brought into the gar¬gantuan Department of Homeland Security after 9/11; now it was clear somebody needed to pull it out again. It was a huge black eye for Home¬land Security. The Harvard prosecutor performed just as poorly as the Oklahoman--even worse. Brown, to his credit, kept trying to get the Bush administration's full attention. Chertoff had assumed his important cabi¬net position with big talk about keeping Americans safe from man-made and natural disasters. He was a principal engineer of the USA Patriot Act and wrote an article in the neoconservative publication The Weekly Standard full of bravado about fighting the war on terror 'beyond case-by-case.' He fancied himself an intellectual, but one who understood trench war¬fare. President Bush, in selecting Chertoff to replace Tom Ridge, said that 'Mike has shown a deep commitment to the cause of justice and unwa¬vering determination to protect the American people.' His determination to protect the American people did not seem to extend to those who lived in Gulf towns like Grand Isle, Louisiana; Ocean Springs, Mississippi; or Dauphin Island, Alabama. The one quality, in fact, not evident in Chertoff 's handling of Katrina was caring about what the storm inflicted. While fellow citizens were dying, screaming for help, clutching chunks of floating wood and palm fronds trying to stay alive, Chertoff, the one " i 've b e e n f e m a - e d " 271 American who could have helped the most, turned a casual, cold, indiffer¬ent eye to their plight.

"When Brown put through his 8 p.m. telephone calls on that Monday, Chertoff was at his home resting. Chertoff 's spokesman later claimed that the Homeland Security secretary "was hobbled by a lack of specific informa¬tion" regarding Katrina on Monday night. That clumsy contrivance pre¬sumed that Chertoff was discounting or ignoring the reports from Brown, who was then in the EOC in Baton Rouge, or those reports streaming in from the affected area that were all over various FEMA offices. Air Force aerial images of the swamped Gulf Coast were arriving with increasing fre¬quency at EOC, each showing an obliterated landscape, with water towers and refineries among the only recognizable landmarks in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. As Homeland Security chief, Chertoff had the most effective communications network of any cabinet office at his disposal, in¬cluding the resources of the top brass in the Pentagon. He didn't use it. If nothing else, there were a growing number of images on television. But he seemed oblivious to Barbour's 'nuclear devastation' metaphor, and allowed the Great Deluge to run its course willy-nilly. 'What happened was Home¬land Security was geared toward terrorism,' Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said. 'They knew that FEMA could cope with a hurricane. Okay. Maybe. But the Bush administration refused to come to grips with the flood. Wind damage was not water. They just didn't get that. In New Orleans, house after house, block after block, mile after mile was disappearing.' "

Right away, Chertoff started lying about his criminal neglect. Four times, for good measure, he referred to non-existent newspaper headlines that said "New Orleans Dodged the Bullet."

More to come later.