A Level Gaze

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Friday, September 09, 2005
Power Grab Update

From the look of the NYT this morning, it looks as though Mick Arran might have been on to something. As is often the case, the juicy bits are buried between the lines, so a little dissection is in order.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor.

This is a red herring, a non-starter. Why would Bush's seizing control over the hurricane area "speed the arrival" of troops? Blanco had already asked him to send military help. I think that formulation may have been a telling slip of the tongue.

The debate began after officials realized that Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the national disaster response plans created after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated.

As the Times makes abundantly clear, it seems that taking over from local authorities was the one thing the administration unambiguously was prepared for. Why would they have spent so much time and effort on it if they had assumed local authorities would have been adequate to the task? How much do you want to bet this is a complete fabrication and that examples to the contrary will be found spread out over dozens of disaster-recovery documents over the next week or two?

As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been why more troops were not available more quickly to restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis.

Blanco had been begging them to send help, as much as they could. To help her people. As it wasn't necessary for Bush to completely take over the situation in order for aid to be delivered, why would she be "wrangling" with the feds over power issues? Answer: because they were insisting on a takeover. Blanco wasn't the one bringing it up.

To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president in times of unrest to command active-duty forces into the states to perform law enforcement duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control, as Bush administration officials believe would have been required to deploy active-duty combat forces before law and order had been re-established. (emphasis added)

Again, as I'll get into in a bit more detail below, Bush's seizing control wasn't necessary for him to use the active-duty military to deliver aid. Also, the whole "felt certain that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering control" is fishier than bouillabaisse. I'm guessing they had already been directly pressuring her to do so, and did not want to admit to so egregious a power grab. Finally, we see again the centrality of the Insurrection Act, which, in the absence of an actual, uh, insurrection, was the only means whereby the feds could have sidestepped local control. The central issue in New Orleans wasn't that law and order had broken down--of course it had; there was a catastrophic flood--it was the humanitarian nightmare of hundreds of thousands of people trapped without water, food, or medical facilities.

The fact that talk of martial law and the Insurrection Act caused available help to be withheld from the dispossessed and stranded is iteslf criminal, but also indicative of an overriding motive that had nothing to do with the welfare of these people.

While combat troops can conduct relief missions without the legal authority of the Insurrection Act, Pentagon and military officials say that no active-duty forces could have been sent into the chaos of New Orleans on Wednesday or Thursday without confronting law-and-order challenges.

This is bullshit, pure and simple. Do they mean to say that the biggest, baddest-assed force in the world can't be sent outside of martial law jurisdictions for relief purposes unless everyone there promises to be perfectly behaved? Aren't disaster areas, the site of most relief operations, themselves challenged in terms of law and order? Don't fights routinely break out in relief lines? That's assault, which is a law-and-order challenge. Give me a break.

But just as important to the administration were worries about the message that would have been sent by a president ousting a Southern governor of another party from command of her National Guard, according to administration, Pentagon and Justice Department officials.

Bullshit again. They didn't care about how it would have looked. In an emergency the size and scale of Katrina, the public would have approved of anything they thought would help. They didn't do it because it would have been blatantly illegal, and would have scared the crap out of every state politician in the country. Once it became clear there wasn't evidence of an armed revolution in the streets of New Orleans, they needed Blanco's permission for a takeover.

Officials in Louisiana agree that the governor would not have given up control over National Guard troops in her state as would have been required to send large numbers of active-duty soldiers into the area. But they also say they were desperate and would have welcomed assistance by active-duty soldiers. (emphasis added)

Is this BS, too? Where does it say Bush has to take control over the National Guard troops in order to send active-duty soldiers? Exactly how many troops would constitute a "large number"? How many could he have sent without seizing control?

By Wednesday, she had asked for 40,000 soldiers.

In the discussions in Washington, also at issue was whether active-duty troops could respond faster and in larger numbers than the Guard.

By last Wednesday, Pentagon officials said even the 82nd Airborne, which has a brigade on standby to move out within 18 hours, could not arrive any faster than 7,000 National Guard troops, which are specially trained and equipped for civilian law enforcement duties.

In the end, the flow of thousands of National Guard soldiers, especially military police, was accelerated from other states.

Why were they discussing who could get where faster on Wednesday? The enormity of the human tragedy that engulfed New Orleans was on every newspaper and television screen in the country. They should have sent everything they could find, or at least up to the 40,000 requested by Blanco. This shouldn't have required reflection, or legal niceties. People were in trouble, and it was the administration's duty to help. And of course the active-duty forces could have gotten there faster. They're "active" and "on duty." So they can get places fast.

In any case, they would have arrived a hell of a lot faster if they had been ordered to go.

But one senior Army officer expressed puzzlement that active-duty troops were not summoned sooner, saying 82nd Airborne troops were ready to move out from Fort Bragg, N.C., on Sunday, the day before the hurricane hit.

The call never came, administration officials said, in part because military officials believed Guard troops would get to the stricken region faster and because administration civilians worried that there could be political fallout if federal troops were forced to shoot looters.

So, "administration civilians" are admitting they didn't send available help to New Orleans because they were worried about "political fallout." Just like that. People suffered and died so the Bush administration could avoid "political fallout," and the Bush administration appears not to be shy about admitting it.

And why, exactly, would they have had to shoot looters? Aren't there priorities in life-and-death situations? Perhaps they could have worried first about feeding and rescuing people to save their lives, and then taken care of the breaking and entering. I don't know where it's written that looters have to be shot, and I don't know of many small bands of looters that would stand up against organized military force, but that's evidently how the thinking went in the Bush administration.

I don't know what's more inhuman: that they feel that people's lives are expendable in the name of politics, or that they were focused on the potential for looting over their responsibility to protect their own citizens. Perhaps the latter can be attributed to the time spent laying the groundwork for a takeover.

Aides to Ms. Blanco said she was prepared to accept the deployment of active-duty military officials in her state. But she and other state officials balked at giving up control of the Guard as Justice Department officials said would have been required by the Insurrection Act if those combat troops were to be sent in before order was restored.

More reverse-causality crap. Short of a full-on rebellion, whether the Act was invoked was Blanco's decision; it couldn't be used to force her to do anything. It could, however, have been involved as the price of a quid pro quo that got desperately needed aid to the huddled masses of New Orleans.

In a separate discussion last weekend, the governor also rejected a more modest proposal for a hybrid command structure in which both the Guard and active-duty troops would be under the command of an active-duty, three-star general - but only after he had been sworn into the Louisiana National Guard.

After any justification of invoking the Insurrection Act had passed, they were still trying to take over. As in so many other instances, when one rationale fails, the Bushies try another. A federal takeover was in no way necessary or legally mandated; they wanted it.

The Pentagon is reviewing events from the time Hurricane Katrina reached full strength and bore down on New Orleans and five days later when Mr. Bush ordered 7,200 active-duty soldiers and marines to the scene.

So it turns out they could send active-duty troops down to help? Even without taking over completely? Or does 7,200 fall short of the "large number" that would require the Act to be invoked? Or have they finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, to do the right thing by the fear of more political fallout?

The issue of federalizing the response was one of several legal issues considered in a flurry of meetings at the Justice Department, the White House and other agencies, administration officials said.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Justice Department lawyers to interpret the federal law creatively to help local authorities, those officials said. For example, federal prosecutors prepared to expand their enforcement of some criminal statutes like anti-carjacking laws that can be prosecuted by either state or federal authorities.

On the issue of whether the military could be deployed without the invitation of state officials, the Office of Legal Counsel, the unit within the Justice Department that provides legal advice to federal agencies, concluded that the federal government had authority to move in even over the objection of local officials.

Why were they discussing whether a military deployment could take place without a state invitation? They had already been invited. It was a non-issue, unless, perhaps as part of a deliberate strategy to confuse the issue, you're conflating "military rescue mission" with "complete federal takeover of a disaster area."