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Senators React to Brown Testimony

February 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For more on what was learned from today’s hearing, we turn to two members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee: Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat, and Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah. Welcome, senators, to you both.

Senator Lieberman, beginning with you, what was the most important thing you learned today that explains why the federal government was so slow off the mark in responding to Katrina?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes. I think there were many important things we learned today, both from Michael Brown, former FEMA director, and from two executives of the Department of Homeland Security who testified second; and bottom line, they weren’t — they didn’t do enough to prepare for what everybody told them was coming.

And on the day of the hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, for some reason, though, more than 25 different emails and communications found their way up to Washington saying the levees had been broken and New Orleans was drowning, nobody told — apparently nobody told the president or the secretary of homeland security.

So there wasn’t what the military likes to call situational awareness. And if you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t provide effective leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that assessment, Sen. Bennett?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Yes, I think so. There were plenty of indications of a dysfunctional department, Department of Homeland Security.

As I said at the hearing, that doesn’t particularly surprise me, given the age of the department and the complexity of putting it together, but I was surprised, stunned I guess is a better word for some of the things that former Director Brown had to say about the way he dealt with that dysfunction. It’s part of the problem, but I don’t think he was very effective in trying to deal with the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: And you mean what he said about that he admitted I had basically went around the homeland security chain of command and corresponded directly with the White House?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Yes, I think I’m the only member of the committee who served in the executive branch. I was at the Department of Transportation in the Nixon administration, which was going through exactly the same kinds of challenges that DHS is — absolutely predictable.

You take that many agencies and put them into the same grab bag and expect them to work together harmoniously immediately it just doesn’t happen. It took the Defense Department something like 20 years to get together after it was combined.

But if I had been where he was, the first thing I would have done was pick up the phone and say to whoever answers it, I have to talk to Secretary Chertoff and I have to talk to him right now. I don’t care what else he’s doing; you get a hold of him. There is a disaster here and I’ve got to get him.

And he not only said he didn’t do that but that he didn’t want to do that, that he didn’t want to talk to the secretary. He preferred to go around the secretary and talk to his friends at the White House. That is a stunning demonstration of a dysfunctional department.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Lieberman, what was your assessment of that? I mean, there was some finger pointing today because as you said, homeland security officials followed Michael Brown about whose fault it was that at the highest levels of homeland security they didn’t know the levees had been broken until Tuesday? What’s your assessment of where the fault lies there is?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: My assessment generally before I answer that specifically is that here again today we saw and we’ve seen throughout our investigation Michael Brown as director of FEMA did not perform as he should have.

But any attempt to say that all of the problems in the federal government response, which was inadequate to the hurricane, were the fault of Michael Brown is just not right.

There are a lot of other people who failed. And today we had the gentleman who’s the head of the Homeland Security Operations Center. This is something we set up after 9/11 so that all the federal agencies that are remotely relevant are there at the table; they’re all getting information. They’re supposed to be able to connect the dots and have what I described earlier, situational awareness.

And during the day you have emails coming into that center from, for instance, the National Weather Service saying quite explicitly, and I presented them today, the levees have broken in New Orleans. New Orleans is underwater; people are dying and drowning. And yet the head of that center blamed Michael Brown for not reporting from the scene but right under him he had that information and for some reason it didn’t get to him.

So he goes home at night, looks at television, sees people in the French Quarter of New Orleans drinking beer and he says, hey, that’s it, New Orleans is okay. There’s just been a little flooding.

Well, what I’m saying is there was a lot of finger pointing at everybody else. I’m afraid the reality is that everybody that we’ve seen so far from the federal government, with the exception of the National Weather Service and the United States Coast Guard, did not perform well enough, quickly enough to stem the damage from this hurricane.

MARGARET WARNER: So Sen. Lieberman, staying with you for a minute, there was a lot of focus today on when Michael Brown or when the White House was informed by him or by someone that these levees had broken, whether it was Monday night, whether it was Tuesday, one, what is your conclusion on that point, after today’s testimony, and, two, what difference really did that make if we’re talking about 12 hours?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Right. Well, what’s very clear from Mr. Brown’s testimony, and Bob Bennett is right — he didn’t like the fact that he had to report to Secretary Chertoff — he wanted to go to the White House –and that was in a way an act of disobedience because the system required him to go through Secretary Chertoff.

But his testimony is very clear today. Beginning around noon, he emails Joe Hagen, who is the deputy chief of staff at the White House —

MARGARET WARNER: This is noon, Monday?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: This is Monday, the day that the hurricane hit that morning; he says, this is really serious. He may send one or two more emails a little bit later on, I would guess in the afternoon. Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff, sends him, Michael Brown an email and says, Joe Hagen has kept me posted. I know this is serious. Do you need anything more? Michael Brown says no.

Later in the afternoon, the FEMA employee down there, Marty Bahamonde, goes up in a helicopter; he sees that the levees are broken with his own eyes. He sees most of the city underwater; comes off the Coast Guard helicopter, calls Michael Brown and Michael Brown says thanks, gets off the phone, calls Joe Hagen, deputy chief of staff to the president, who is at Crawford, Texas with the president, and tells him that there is a disaster occurring in New Orleans.

I asked Michael Brown, was President Bush on the phone? He said, “I don’t remember.” I said, “You don’t remember?” He said, I really don’t remember because I was speaking to so many people and I often did speak to the president, talked to him over the preceding weekend about what might have happened.

Anyway, the deputy chief of staff was told that early evening, presumably you think would have told the president. Then later in the evening, there’s another communication with Joe Hagen and Michael Brown and then the president, however, is apparently not told because he says later in the week he didn’t find out until Tuesday morning.

MARGARET WARNER: So Sen. Bennett, do you concur roughly with that timeline and if so, how important do you think that was in terms of the overall federal response?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I think it was quite important. In a disaster of this kind, even an hour can make a difference in terms of setting in motion the response.

The thing that struck me about it was that, yes, I believe Michael Brown. I think he was speaking accurately when he said he made those calls.

The thing we don’t have, and probably will never get, is an understanding of sense of urgency connected with the call. It’s one thing to call somebody and say, well, there’s a disaster breaking in New Orleans. Oh, really? Do you need anything? No, not now. Oh, it’s worse than I thought — or the kind of call that I was vying earlier which is, wait a minute, you get a hold of the president be, you get a hold — this is serious, guys. I can’t over stress this. There is a disaster. The levee’s break — you can have a phone call and then you can have a phone call. And we don’t know in which category this one fell.

And the one thing that did strike me as interesting, when he was asked directly to whom did you speak the first time you called the White House, he said, I don’t remember. And then he went on to describe in great detail what he said. And I said, how can you remember what you said if you can’t remember to whom you said it? And his answer was, well, I remember what I said because that’s what I was saying to everybody.

Well, once again, we don’t know the sense of urgency that was conveyed so just getting a timeline of the call came in at “X” time and so and so was on the line doesn’t really tell us what happened. We’ll probably never know.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask you both a final question and really combine too which may be risky on my part. But, Sen. Bennett, beginning with you, Michael Brown also made another point, which was that FEMA’s function and also response to natural disasters had been crippled when it was absorbed in the Department of Homeland Security. It said it became kind a stepchild. One, do you agree with that? And two, do you think this whole confusion, lack of communication, has been fixed or do you think if we had another natural or terror disaster we would see similar pattern unfold?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I’m really not sure of the answer to the first question. I don’t think there’s any question but what the primary focus of homeland security was on terrorism. If you’re going to look at priorities, I’m sure that at the top they said, look, our No. 1 priority is to get ready for the new threat that we’ve never faced before and FEMA can fend for itself. FEMA has a history of handling things and we won’t focus that much on FEMA. Whether that created a crisis situation or whether his comments were self-serving, again, I don’t think we’ll ever know.

As to your second question, probably they’re not fixed. Undoubtedly, there is a great pressure to get them fixed. But I go back to my earlier statement. When you put together a department of that kind, I made the prediction when it was created, it will take five years before it will work, and I’m not saying that in a sense to criticize anybody. That’s just the magnitude of the task.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Lieberman, your thought on those two questions.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Right. I have seen and learned nothing in our investigation that leads me to change my opinion that when we put FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, we did something sensible. FEMA is the Emergency Management Agency, managing the preparation for and response to a disaster, whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or a terrorist attack has great similarities. So it belongs in the Department of Homeland Security in my opinion.

In my opinion, the problem in the response and preparation for Hurricane Katrina was not the organizational structure; it was the people in the positions in that organizational structure.

MARGARET WARNER: And so has that been fixed?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, Mr. Brown is not there anymore. And we’ll wait to see the rest. I mean, the witnesses said to us today from Homeland Security, yes, they’ve changed what happened because it was just inadequate; I hope so with a special urgency because hurricane season starts again in June, and unfortunately the terrorist threat has never stopped. So we need to be better protected and better protect the American people than the federal government did in response to Hurricane Katrina.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sen. Lieberman and Sen. Bennett, thank you both.