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?
It’s unfathomable. Chertoff’s response to Russert should have been “Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said “New Orleans Dodged The Bullet,” which surprised me, because I knew the headline was dead wrong.”
And that brings us to the second thing that is wrong with his statement.
The amazing thing about the Internet is that you can check things like a headline. One question the media had following Chertoff’s interview with Russert was “Which newspaper?” No one could figure it out.
The reason? Well, consider that Newseum has 477 archived front pages from Aug. 30 — and none of them have anything close to “New Orleans Dodged The Bullet.”
I gave Chertoff the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he read the headline on-line. Or maybe he, like the president, gets a daily briefing gathered by a staffer, which would include print-outs from the Internet of stories around the country.
Sure enough, following a Google search, I found a couple of headlines that fit the bill. The conservative website World Net Daily ran a story on Aug. 29 — that would be Monday, not Tuesday — with the headline, “Hurricane slams ashore, N’Orleans dodges bullet.”
Then there was the Grenada (as in the island) Daily Star, which ran an Associated Press story on Aug. 29 — again Monday, not Tuesday — under the headline, “Big Easy dodges bullet.”
I found one other headline, from a story filed at 11:37 a.m. central time, in QuickDFW, the on-line version of a free weekly for residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, under the headline,”New Orleans dodges another bullet.” But clearly this story and headline shouldn’t have run — the levee had broken 10 hours earlier.
Now, to find even these obscure stories, I had to search through several dozen choices on Google, and use two searches — one with the words “Katrina” “Dodged” “Bullet,” and another using “Dodges” instead of “Dodged.”
Even giving Chertoff the benefit of the doubt — that he didn’t “open newspapers,” but instead either went on-line, or received a briefing that had a summary of the headlines of the day — are we to believe that Chertoff actually found these headlines? And furthermore, that he would believe those headlines, having received no other information from FEMA Director Brown, other emergency personnel, or by simply watching television news coverage?
Simply put, there are only two options:
a) Chertoff lied to Russert and the American people
b) Chertoff presented a storyline to suggest that he was out-of-touch with the situation, out-of-contact with appropriate sources of information, and thus grossly incompetent heading the federal response.
But wait, it gets worse.
Chertoff’s fictional headline — the presumptive lie he told the American people — has been repeated, several times, in the days that followed.
– General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used the talking point at a press conference. He wrongly said “most of the papers” had the headline on Tuesday.
– Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used the talking point in an interview with the Sean Hannity radio show. Rumsfeld told Hannity that the federal response was confused because of the misleading newspaper headlines — headlines that didn’t exist.
– GOP matinee idol (and California Congressman) David Dreier used the talking point in an interview with the BBC.
How can this be? How can a canard become a talking point? Because now, on top of the Homeland Security Secretary, the Secretary of Defense and others, you have conservative talk radio and the right-wing of the blogosphere trying to convince people of this lie. And an illogical lie at that.
This is reason enough for an independent commission to investigate the Katrina response, rather than the Republican-led effort that is proceeding.
This article first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.