Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, discussing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina on national television, offered a defense that was almost certainly a lie — and if true suggests gross incompetence.
Let's review. During a lengthy back-and-forth with Tim Russert on the Sept. 4 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, there was this exchange:
RUSSERT: There's a CD which is in your department and the White House has it and the president, and you are saying, "We were surprised that the levees may not hold." How could this be?
CHERTOFF: No, Tim, I have to tell you, that's not what I said. You have to listen to what I said. What I said was not that we didn't anticipate that there's a possibility the levees will break. What I said is in this storm, what happened is the storm passed and passed without the levees breaking on Monday. Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said "New Orleans Dodged The Bullet," which surprised people.
There are two major problems with Chertoff's response, a variation of which he offered on CNN later in the day:
First, are we to believe that the person in charge of managing the federal response to Katrina got his information from newspaper headlines? Are we to believe that Chertoff was not in contact with FEMA Director Michael Brown, or emergency personnel on the ground in New Orleans, at some point late Monday night or early Tuesday morning?
The levees broke last Monday night, and by 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, CNN was reporting that a two-block breach had occurred in the 17th Street Canal. If you were watching CNN at the time, you'll recall that the anchor was interviewing a hospital director who was describing water rising by one foot every five minutes. The phone interview was repeated throughout the night.
So are we to believe that no one contacted Chertoff at, say, 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., to inform him that the levee had breached and the city was rapidly flooding? Are we to believe no one said, "Michael, turn on CNN"? Are we to believe that the Homeland Security Secretary actually got his news the following morning from newspaper headlines?