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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chertoff Draws Fire on Briefing - New York Times

Chertoff Draws Fire on Briefing - New York TimesSeptember 8, 2005
Chertoff Draws Fire on Briefing
By ERIC LICHTBLAU

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 - Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary who has been the Bush administration's point man in fielding criticism of the hurricane relief effort, came under fire Wednesday from some Congressional Democrats for private remarks about the conditions faced by storm survivors that struck the lawmakers as insensitive.

The new criticism was set off by a private and sometimes contentious briefing that Mr. Chertoff and other senior administration officials gave to House members on Tuesday night on the status of relief efforts.

Exactly what was said at the closed-door briefing remained in some dispute Wednesday.

Administration officials and Democrats at the briefing agreed that Mr. Chertoff and other speakers emphasized that news images showing horrendous conditions for evacuees in shelters did not reflect the totality of the federal government's response.

But administration officials said several remarks that House members attributed to Mr. Chertoff were in fact made by other officials.

For instance, one administration official who was at the briefing said it was Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, not Mr. Chertoff, who told House members that television images of sparse relief efforts for evacuees sheltered at the Superdome offered "a small soda-straw view of what was going on."

Still, much of the Democrats' criticism was directed at Mr. Chertoff himself.

Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said the message he took from Mr. Chertoff's comments regarding the relief effort was that "what you see is not really what is."

"People just looked at him," Mr. Thompson said. "He was the first speaker, and it sort of went downhill after that. People felt we are not going to get the truth here."

A few Democrats were so upset by the tone of Mr. Chertoff's remarks that they walked out of the briefing, said Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who said he stayed for all of the remarks but became increasingly frustrated by what he heard.

"The picture was being painted that things were not as bad as they appeared to be" in news reports, Mr. Cummings said in an interview. "It reached the point where the answers didn't add up."

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Mr. Chertoff said nothing at the House briefing to minimize the suffering of evacuees at the Superdome and "was appalled by the situation" when he toured the site, where evacuees complained that food, water and medical supplies were in short supply.

At the same time, however, Mr. Chertoff believes that rescue crews had to make it their top priority to try to save people outside the stadium, Mr. Knocke said in an interview.

"While the situation in the Superdome was nightmarish and not satisfactory to anyone involved," Mr. Knocke said, "it was not a life-and-death situation, and we had to focus our priorities where we could."

Even so, he said relief crews delivered seven trailers filled with water and ready-to-eat meals to the Superdome before the storm hit on Aug. 29, along with another seven trailers on Aug. 30.

Homeland Security Department officials said Mr. Chertoff, in his assessment of relief priorities in New Orleans, as well as in his comments in July about the threat posed by a terrorist attack in a subway system, was giving a blunt assessment of the difficult choices that federal officials faced in disasters.

Since taking over as homeland secretary this year after serving as a judge and a top Justice Department official, Mr. Chertoff has pushed for setting clearer priorities for assessing financing and resources for domestic security.

A former organized-crime prosecutor, Mr. Chertoff has always had a reputation for a blunt-spoken manner.

In July, after the London subway bombings, he caused a minor flap by suggesting that the federal government did not consider the threat of a subway bomb, which he said "may kill 30 people," to represent as high a priority as the "catastrophic" prospect of another airplane strike that could kill thousands.

"Secretary Chertoff is candid, he's open, he's direct, and I think a lot of people find that a refreshing attitude," Mr. Knocke said. "He doesn't mince words, and the fact that he's willing to talk frankly about complex issue speaks to his characteristics as a leader and his no-nonsense approach to an extraordinarily tough job."

Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington for this article.

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