Contact Me By Email

Atlanta, GA Weather from Weather Underground

Saturday, February 11, 2006

France Backs Putin on Speaking to Hamas - New York Times

France Backs Putin on Speaking to Hamas - New York TimesFebruary 11, 2006
France Backs Putin on Speaking to Hamas

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 — France on Friday endorsed Russia's decision to hold talks on the Middle East conflict with Hamas, the radical Islamist Palestinian group, saying the discussion "can contribute to advancing our positions."

Other European countries distanced themselves from the French statement, which appeared to be in defiance of the American and European view that Hamas is a terrorist organization and therefore should not be officially recognized. Israel condemned it. But the United States took a more cautious approach.

"Our position is not to tell the whole world that they can't talk to Hamas," said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That would be hard to enforce. The issue is less who's talking than what they are saying."

On Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said he was considering inviting Hamas, the winner of the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25, to Moscow for talks, and on Friday the Kremlin confirmed that it would do so. Mr. Putin's remarks took the Bush administration and European leaders by surprise.

Israel reacted to the Russian decision with fury on Friday. Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit called the Putin invitation "a real knife in the back."

But in Washington, a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday and was reassured to hear that the Russians would deliver a "clear, strong message" to Hamas.

The United States considers Hamas a terrorist group, and American officials are forbidden to talk to the organization. The European Union's policy on talks is not as clear, several officials and diplomats said in interviews. But none said their countries would talk with Hamas.

Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany is to go to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Sunday, but a German official insisted, "He is definitely not going to talk to Hamas."

A French diplomat said France "won't have contacts with Hamas," despite its statement of support for the Russian talks.

Speaking to reporters in Paris on Friday, Denis Simonneau, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Russia had not informed European leaders of its intent to talk with Hamas. Still, he added, "we share with Russia the goal to bring Hamas to the positions which allow us to reach the goal of two states living in peace and security."

"As long as we remain within the framework of the goals and principles that we have set for ourselves, we consider that this initiative can contribute to advancing our positions" — specifically that Hamas disarm, renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect previous agreements with Israel.

Sabbath had begun in Israel by the time the French position became known in Jerusalem on Friday. But Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said in an interview, "I wish they would not have said anything about having a dialogue with terrorists."

Israeli officials in Jerusalem were less restrained when speaking on Friday about the Russian decision.

Housing Minister Zeev Boim said, "Putin is dancing with wolves."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, returning from New York on Friday, said, "Every sign of weakness and of recognition will be interpreted by Hamas as legitimizing terror."

Egyptian Diplomat Is Released

GAZA, Saturday, Feb. 11 (Reuters) — An Egyptian military attaché kidnapped Thursday by gunmen in Gaza was released unharmed on Saturday, an Egyptian official in Gaza said.

A previously unknown militant group, calling itself the Free Men Brigades, had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the diplomat, Hussam al-Musli, demanding the release of all Palestinians held in Egyptian prisons.

The Egyptian official who had announced Mr. Musli's release would not discuss the circumstances.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Jerusalem for this article, and Ariane Bernard from Paris.

Ex-C.I.A. Official Says Iraq Data Was Distorted - New York Times

Ex-C.I.A. Official Says Iraq Data Was Distorted - New York TimesFebruary 11, 2006
Ex-C.I.A. Official Says Iraq Data Was Distorted

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 — A C.I.A. veteran who oversaw intelligence assessments about the Middle East from 2000 to 2005 on Friday accused the Bush administration of ignoring or distorting the prewar evidence on a broad range of issues related to Iraq in its effort to justify the American invasion of 2003.

The views of Paul R. Pillar, who retired in October as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, echoed previous criticism from Democrats and from some administration officials, including Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser, and Paul H. O'Neill, the former treasury secretary.

But Mr. Pillar is the first high-level C.I.A. insider to speak out by name on the use of prewar intelligence. His article for the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, which charges the administration with the selective use of intelligence about Iraq's unconventional weapons and the chances of postwar chaos in Iraq, was posted Friday on the journal's Web site after it was reported in The Washington Post.

"If the entire body of official intelligence on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war — or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath," Mr. Pillar wrote. "What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in decades."

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Pillar said he recognized that his views would become part of the highly partisan, three-year-old battle over the administration's reasons for going to war. But he said his goal in speaking publicly was to help repair what he called a "broken" relationship between the intelligence produced by the nation's spies and the way it is used by its leaders.

"There is ground to be replowed on Iraq," said Mr. Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University. "But what is more important is to look at the whole intelligence-policy relationship and get a discussion and debate going to make sure what happened on Iraq doesn't happen again."

President Bush and his aides have denied that the Iraq intelligence was politicized. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said in November, "Our statements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein were based on the aggregation of intelligence from a number of sources, and represented the collective view of the intelligence community. Those judgments were shared by Republicans and Democrats alike."

Reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the presidential commission on weapons intelligence headed by Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, the former Virginia governor and senator, found that C.I.A. analysts had not been pressed to change their views. A second phase of the Senate committee review, on how administration officials used intelligence, has not been completed.

Mr. Pillar alleged that the earlier studies had considered only "the crudest attempts at politicization" and that the real pressures were far more subtle. "Intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions that had already been made," chiefly to topple Mr. Hussein in order to "shake up the sclerotic power structures of the Middle East," he wrote.

According to Mr. Pillar's account, the administration shaped the answers it got in part by repeatedly asking the same questions, about the threat posed by Iraqi weapons and about ties between Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda. When intelligence analysts resisted, he wrote, some of the administration's allies accused Mr. Pillar and others of "trying to sabotage the president's policies."

In light of such accusations, he wrote, analysts began to "sugarcoat" their conclusions.

Mr. Pillar called for a formal declaration by Congress and the White House that intelligence should be clearly separated from policy. He proposed the creation of an independent office, modeled on the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, to assess the use of intelligence at the request of members of Congress.

Mr. Pillar suggested that the root of the problem might be that top intelligence officials serve at the pleasure of the president.

A C.I.A. spokeswoman, Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, said the agency had no comment.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that the C.I.A. had long resisted intervention in Iraq, and that internal pressure on analysts to resist war was greater than any external pressure.

"If the C.I.A. had spent less time leaking its opinions, throughout the 1990's, opposed to any conflict with Iraq, and more time developing assets inside Iraq, the agency would have more credibility and better intelligence," said Ms. Pletka, who served for a decade, until 2002, as a Republican staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ex-FEMA Leader Faults Response by White House - New York Times

Ex-FEMA Leader Faults Response by White House - New York TimesFebruary 11, 2006
Ex-FEMA Leader Faults Response by White House

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 — Michael D. Brown, the former federal emergency management chief who became a ridiculed symbol of the Bush administration's flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, returned in anger to Capitol Hill on Friday and lashed back at his former superiors.

Mr. Brown said that he told a senior White House official early on of the New Orleans flooding, and that the administration was too focused on terrorism to respond properly to natural disasters.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Mr. Brown said he notified a senior White House official — who he said was probably Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, but might have been Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff — on the day the hurricane hit to report that it had turned into his "worst nightmare" and that New Orleans was flooding.

It was the first public identification of any White House official who was said to have directly received reports of extensive flooding on Monday, Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina hit.

In the aftermath of the storm, administration officials said they were caught by surprise when they were told of the levee breach on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Mr. Hagin was the senior staff member with President Bush on the day the hurricane hit, when Mr. Bush was traveling in California.

Mr. Brown's politically charged appearance before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs quickly divided the panel's members by party.

Several Republican senators peppered him with hostile questions and suggested he was trying to deflect the blame from his own failures.

In contrast, Mr. Brown drew a gentle, even warm response from Democrats who said he had unfairly been made a scapegoat by the administration, though last year it was frequently Mr. Brown himself who drew the most fire from Democrats in Washington.

In contrast to low-key statements in the past, Mr. Brown, who resigned under pressure on Sept. 12 as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was aggressively on the defensive, saying he was "sick and tired" of his remarks or e-mail messages being taken out of context or hearing that he lacked the leadership skills for his job.

Mr. Brown said it was "baloney" for Department of Homeland Security officials to claim they did not know of the extent of the flooding until Tuesday, because he and other FEMA officials had notified them the day before.

In response to questioning, Mr. Brown also said he believed he told the White House on Monday that a breach had occurred in the 17th Street Canal levee, passing on observations made by one of his staff members on the ground in New Orleans that day.

"Everything that we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true," Mr. Brown said he told the White House aide.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Friday morning while the hearing was under way that the administration already knew the city was being flooded. Regardless of the call from Mr. Brown, there were conflicting reports about whether a levee had been breached, Mr. McClellan said.

"The top priority at that time was on saving lives; it was on search and rescue operations," Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Brown said that he could not recall if he personally called the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to relay the account of the levee breach. Even if he had, Mr. Brown said, it would have been a waste of time because FEMA's role within the Homeland Security Department had been subordinated to fighting terror. As a result of that, he said, he was unable to quickly get the kind of action he needed, unless he called the White House staff.

The Bush administration, as a whole, he said, did not seem to care enough about natural disasters and had relegated natural disasters to a "stepchild" of national security.

"It is my belief," Mr. Brown told the senators, that if "we've confirmed that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could."

Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the chairwoman, said Mr. Brown's disdain for the new domestic security structure left the department without crucial information it needed about what was happening in New Orleans. Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, said Mr. Brown was shifting attention away from his own lack of responsiveness to the disaster.

"You're not prepared to kind of put a mirror in front of your face and recognize your own inadequacies and say, 'You know something, I made some big mistakes. I wasn't focused. I didn't get things done,' " Mr. Coleman said.

The remark provoked Mr. Brown to raise his voice almost to a shout.

"What do you want me to say?" Mr. Brown said. "I have admitted to mistakes publicly. I've admitted to mistakes in hearings. What more, Senator Coleman, do you want from me?"

Mr. Coleman responded: "A little more candor would suffice."

Democrats, including Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, said Mr. Brown was being made a scapegoat to deflect criticism from the White House.

"Keep your chin up and fight back," Mr. Lautenberg said.

Several senators, including Democrats, said they were surprised by Mr. Brown's inability to remember crucial details from the early days of the storm, including which White House aide he spoke with and whether Mr. Bush participated in the telephone call.

Mr. Brown also gave differing answers about whether he actually mentioned the levee breach to the White House. At first he said he could not recall whether he used those words but then later he said that he was sure Mr. Hagin or Mr. Card knew it and that he would have told one of them about the breach during the conversation.

He said he could not recall whether he told the White House aide that he needed any particular help — at a time when the city was flooding, thousands were packed into the Superdome without adequate supplies and others were beginning to climb to roofs or attics to avoid drowning.

Two senior Homeland Security Department officials, who testified after Mr. Brown, said that his unwillingness to honor the chain of command and give regular updates to Mr. Chertoff or others in the department severely hampered the department's response.

"We have a president, we have a secretary that are seeing things on television, we're getting reports, what is going on down there?" said Gen. Matthew E. Broderick, who served as the director of the Homeland Security Department's information center in Washington during the storm, recalling his request to FEMA for more information.

Friday, February 10, 2006

White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm - New York Times

White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm - New York TimesFebruary 10, 2006
The Inquiry
White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.

But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department's headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency official, Marty Bahamonde, first heard of a major levee breach Monday morning. By late Monday afternoon, Mr. Bahamonde had hitched a ride on a Coast Guard helicopter over the breach at the 17th Street Canal to confirm the extensive flooding. He then telephoned his report to FEMA headquarters in Washington, which notified the Homeland Security Department.

"FYI from FEMA," said an e-mail message from the agency's public affairs staff describing the helicopter flight, sent Monday night at 9:27 to the chief of staff of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and recently unearthed by investigators. Conditions, the message said, "are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought — also a number of fires."

Michael D. Brown, who was the director of FEMA until he resigned under pressure on Sept. 12, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he personally notified the White House of this news that night, though he declined to identify the official he spoke to.

White House officials have confirmed to Congressional investigators that the report of the levee break arrived there at midnight, and Trent Duffy, the White House spokesman, acknowledged as much in an interview this week, though he said it was surrounded with conflicting reports.

But the alert did not seem to register. Even the next morning, President Bush, on vacation in Texas, was feeling relieved that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet," he later recalled. Mr. Chertoff, similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday.

The federal government let out a sigh of relief when in fact it should have been sounding an "all hands on deck" alarm, the investigators have found.

This chain of events, along with dozens of other critical flashpoints in the Hurricane Katrina saga, has for the first time been laid out in detail following five months of work by two Congressional committees that have assembled nearly 800,000 pages of documents, testimony and interviews from more than 250 witnesses. Investigators now have the documentation to pinpoint some of the fundamental errors and oversights that combined to produce what is universally agreed to be a flawed government response to the worst natural disaster in modern American history.

On Friday, Mr. Brown, the former FEMA director, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He is expected to confirm that he notified the White House on that Monday, the day the hurricane hit, that the levee had given way, the city was flooding and his crews were overwhelmed.

"There is no question in my mind that at the highest levels of the White House they understood how grave the situation was," Mr. Brown said in the interview.

The problem, he said, was the handicapping of FEMA when it was turned into a division of the Homeland Security Department in 2003.

"The real story is with this new structure," he said. "Why weren't more things done, or what prevented or delayed Mike Brown from being able to do what he would have done and did do in any other disaster?"

Although Mr. Bahamonde said in October that he had notified Mr. Brown that Monday, it was not known until recently what Mr. Brown or the Homeland Security Department did with that information, or when the White House was told.

Missteps at All Levels

It has been known since the earliest days of the storm that all levels of government — from the White House to the Department of Homeland Security to the Louisiana Capitol to New Orleans City Hall — were unprepared, uncommunicative and phlegmatic in protecting Gulf Coast residents from the floodwaters and their aftermath. But an examination of the latest evidence by The New York Times shines a new light on the key players involved in the important turning points: what they said, what they did and what they did not do, all of which will soon be written up in the committees' investigative reports.

Among the findings that emerge in the mass of documents and testimony were these:

¶Federal officials knew long before the storm showed up on the radar that 100,000 people in New Orleans had no way to escape a major hurricane on their own and that the city had finished only 10 percent of a plan for how to evacuate its largely poor, African-American population.

¶Mr. Chertoff failed to name a principal federal official to oversee the response before the hurricane arrived, an omission a top Pentagon official acknowledged to investigators complicated the coordination of the response. His department also did not plan enough to prevent a conflict over which agency should be in charge of law enforcement support. And Mr. Chertoff was either poorly informed about the levee break or did not recognize the significance of the initial report about it, investigators said.

¶The Louisiana transportation secretary, Johnny B. Bradberry, who had legal responsibility for the evacuation of thousands of people in nursing homes and hospitals, admitted bluntly to investigators, "We put no plans in place to do any of this."

¶Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans at first directed his staff to prepare a mandatory evacuation of his city on Saturday, two days before the storm hit, but he testified that he had not done so that day while he and other city officials struggled to decide if they should exempt hospitals and hotels from the order. The mandatory evacuation occurred on Sunday, and the delay exacerbated the difficulty in moving people away from the storm.

¶The New Orleans Police Department unit assigned to the rescue effort, despite many years' worth of flood warnings and requests for money, had just three small boats and no food, water or fuel to supply its emergency workers.

¶Investigators could find no evidence that food and water supplies were formally ordered for the Convention Center, where more than 10,000 evacuees had assembled, until days after the city had decided to open it as a backup emergency shelter. FEMA had planned to have 360,000 ready-to-eat meals delivered to the city and 15 trucks of water in advance of the storm. But only 40,000 meals and five trucks of water had arrived.

Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the hurricane response, said the only government agency that performed well was the National Weather Service, which correctly predicted the force of the storm. But no one heeded the message, he said.

"The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president's chief of staff is in Maine," Mr. Davis said. "In retrospect, don't you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement."

One of the greatest mysteries for both the House and Senate committees has been why it took so long, even after Mr. Bahamonde filed his urgent report on the Monday the storm hit, for federal officials to appreciate that the levee had broken and that New Orleans was flooding.

Eyewitness to Devastation

As his helicopter approached the site, Mr. Bahamonde testified in October, there was no mistaking what had happened: large sections of the levee had fallen over, leaving the section of the city on the collapsed side entirely submerged, but the neighborhood on the other side relatively dry. He snapped a picture of the scene with a small camera.

"The situation is only going to get worse," he said he warned Mr. Brown, then the FEMA director, whom he called about 8 p.m. Monday Eastern time to report on his helicopter tour.

"Thank you," he said Mr. Brown replied. "I am now going to call the White House."

Citing restrictions placed on him by his lawyers, Mr. Brown declined to tell House investigators during testimony if he had actually made that call. White House aides have urged administration officials not to discuss any conversations with the president or his top advisors and declined to release e-mail messages sent among Mr. Bush's senior advisors.

But investigators have found the e-mail message referring to Mr. Bahamonde's helicopter survey that was sent to John F. Wood, chief of staff to Secretary Chertoff at 9:27 p.m. They have also found a summary of Mr. Bahamonde's observations that was issued at 10:30 p.m. and an 11:05 p.m. e-mail message to Michael Jackson, the deputy secretary of homeland security. Each message describes in detail the extensive flooding that was taking place in New Orleans after the levee collapse.

Given this chain of events, investigators have repeatedly questioned why Mr. Bush and Mr. Chertoff stated in the days after the storm that the levee break did not happen until Tuesday, as they made an effort to explain why they initially thought the storm had passed without the catastrophe that some had feared.

"The hurricane started to depart the area on Monday, and then Tuesday morning the levee broke and the water started to flood into New Orleans," Mr. Chertoff said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Sept. 4, the weekend after the hurricane hit.

Mr. Chertoff and White House officials have said that they were referring to official confirmation that the levee had broken, which they say they received Tuesday morning from the Army Corps of Engineers. They also say there were conflicting reports all day Monday about whether a breach had occurred and noted that they were not alone in failing to recognize the growing catastrophe.

Mr. Duffy, the White House spokesman, said it would not have made much difference even if the White House had realized the significance of the midnight report. "Like it or not, you cannot fix a levee overnight, or in an hour, or even six hours," he said.

But Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said it was obvious to her in retrospect that Mr. Chertoff, perhaps in deference to Mr. Brown's authority, was not paying close enough attention to the events in New Orleans and that the federal response to the disaster may have been slowed as a result.

"Secretary Chertoff was too disengaged from the process," Ms. Collins said in an interview.

Compounding the problem, once Mr. Chertoff learned of the levee break on Tuesday, he could not reach Mr. Brown, his top emergency response official, for an entire day because Mr. Brown was on helicopter tours of the damage.

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the homeland security committee, said the government confusion reminded him of the period surrounding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Information was in different places, in that case prior to the attack," Mr. Lieberman said, "and it wasn't reaching the key decision makers in a coordinated way for them to take action."

Russ Knocke, a homeland security spokesman, said that although Mr. Chertoff had been "intensely involved in monitoring the storm" he had not actually been told about the report of the levee breach until Tuesday, after he arrived in Atlanta.

"No one is satisfied with the response in the early days," Mr. Knocke said.

But he rejected criticism by Senator Collins and others that Mr. Chertoff was disengaged.

"He was not informed of it," Mr. Knocke said. "It is certainly a breakdown. And through an after-action process, that is something we will address."

The day before the hurricane made landfall, the Homeland Security Department issued a report predicting that it could lead to a levee breach that could submerge New Orleans for months and leave 100,000 people stranded. Yet despite these warnings, state, federal and local officials acknowledged to investigators that there was no coordinated effort before the storm arrived to evacuate nursing homes and hospitals or others in the urban population without cars.

Focus on Highway Plan

Mr. Bradberry, the state transportation secretary, told an investigator that he had focused on improving the highway evacuation plan for the general public with cars and had not attended to his responsibility to remove people from hospitals and nursing homes. The state even turned down an offer for patient evacuation assistance from the federal government.

In fact, the city was desperately in need of help. And this failure would have deadly consequences. Only 21 of the 60 or so nursing homes were cleared of residents before the storm struck. Dozens of lives were lost in hospitals and nursing homes.

One reason the city was unable to help itself, investigators said, is that it never bought the basic equipment needed to respond to the long-predicted catastrophe. The Fire Department had asked for inflatable boats and generators, as well as an emergency food supply, but none were provided, a department official told investigators.

Timothy P. Bayard, a police narcotics commander assigned to lead a water rescue effort, said that with just three boats, not counting the two it commandeered and almost no working radios, his small team spent much of its time initially just trying to rescue detectives who themselves were trapped by rising water.

The investigators also determined that the federal Department of Transportation was not asked until Wednesday to provide buses to evacuate the Superdome and the convention center, meaning that evacuees sat there for perhaps two more days longer than necessary.

Mr. Brown acknowledged to investigators that he wished, in retrospect, that he had moved much earlier to turn over major aspects of the response effort to the Department of Defense. It was not until the middle of the week, he said, that he asked the military to take over the delivery and distribution of water, food and ice.

"In hindsight I should have done it right then," Mr. Brown told the House, referring to the Sunday before the storm hit.