Wednesday, January 25, 2006
White House Declines to Provide Storm Papers
By ERIC LIPTON
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 - The Bush administration, citing the confidentiality of executive branch communications, said Tuesday that it did not plan to turn over certain documents about Hurricane Katrina or make senior White House officials available for sworn testimony before two Congressional committees investigating the storm response.
The White House this week also formally notified Representative Richard H. Baker, Republican of Louisiana, that it would not support his legislation creating a federally financed reconstruction program for the state that would bail out homeowners and mortgage lenders. Many Louisiana officials consider the bill crucial to recovery, but administration officials said the state would have to use community development money appropriated by Congress.
The White House's stance on storm-related documents, along with slow or incomplete responses by other agencies, threatens to undermine efforts to identify what went wrong, Democrats on the committees said Tuesday.
"There has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do," Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, said at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate committee investigating the response. His spokeswoman said he would ask for a subpoena for documents and testimony if the White House did not comply.
In response to questions later from a reporter, the deputy White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said the administration had declined requests to provide testimony by Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; Mr. Card's deputy, Joe Hagin; Frances Fragos Townsend, the domestic security adviser; and her deputy, Ken Rapuano.
Mr. Duffy said the administration had also declined to provide storm-related e-mail correspondence and other communications involving White House staff members. Mr. Rapuano has given briefings to the committees, but the sessions were closed to the public and were not considered formal testimony.
"The White House and the administration are cooperating with both the House and Senate," Mr. Duffy said. "But we have also maintained the president's ability to get advice and have conversations with his top advisers that remain confidential."
Yet even Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, objected when administration officials who were not part of the president's staff said they could not testify about communications with the White House.
"I completely disagree with that practice," Ms. Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview Tuesday.
According to Mr. Lieberman, Michael D. Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cited such a restriction on Monday, as agency lawyers had advised him not to say whether he had spoken to President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or to comment on the substance of any conversations with any other high-level White House officials.
Nevertheless, both Ms. Collins and Representative Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican who is leading the House inquiry, said that despite some frustration with the administration's response, they remained confident that the investigations would produce meaningful results.
Other members of the committees said the executive branch communications were essential because it had become apparent that one of the most significant failures was the apparent lack of complete engagement by the White House and the federal government in the days immediately before and after the storm.
"When you have a natural disaster, the president needs to be hands-on, and if anyone in his staff gets in the way, he needs to push them away," said Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican and member of the House investigating committee. "The response was pathetic."
Even before the House and Senate investigations began, Democrats called for the appointment of an independent commission, like the one set up after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to investigate the response to the most costly natural disaster in United States history. The 9/11 Commission, after extensive negotiations, questioned Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and received sworn testimony from Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser.
"Our fears are turning out to be accurate," Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Tuesday. "The Bush administration is stonewalling the Congress."
Mr. Duffy, along with officials from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, said that although not every request had been met, the administration had provided an enormous amount of detailed information about nearly every aspect of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
The Department of Defense, for example, has provided 18 officials for testimony, and 57 others have been interviewed by Congressional staff members, said Maj. Paul Swiergosz, a Pentagon spokesman. It has also turned over an estimated 240,000 pages of documents.
Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said his agency, which oversees FEMA, had been similarly responsive, providing 60 officials as witnesses and producing 300,000 pages of documents.
But the White House and other federal agencies have been less helpful, members of the investigating committees said, particularly the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is the subject of the sole subpoena issued so far.
"We have been trying - without success - to obtain Secretary Rumsfeld's cooperation for months," Representative Charlie Melancon, Democrat of Louisiana, said in a letter to Representative Davis on Monday. "The situation is not acceptable."
Mr. Davis, in a written response to Mr. Melancon on Tuesday, said he felt that the Pentagon, after the subpoena, had largely honored the committee's requests.
The Congressional investigations began in September, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, flooding New Orleans, devastating much of the rest of the region and causing more than $100 billion in damage.
Both of the committees are rushing to try to complete their investigations - the House by Feb. 15, and the Senate by the middle of March - in part because of the approaching Atlantic hurricane season, which starts on June 1.
The separate action this week by the Bush administration to oppose an effort to create what would have been called the Louisiana Recovery Corporation evoked great disappointment among state officials.
Mr. Baker's bill would have bought out owners of ruined homes, offering them at least 60 percent of their pre-storm equity, while also giving mortgage companies 60 percent of their loans on damaged properties. The bonds needed for the project would have been paid off by selling developers federally acquired land.
"The Baker bill as a tool was very efficient in terms of helping people sell out, or clear title to the land," said Sean Reilly, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "We're going to have to go back to the drawing board and do the best with the tools we have."
Donald E. Powell, the Bush administration's Gulf Coast recovery coordinator, said in a statement that the government was prepared to help victims in other ways.
"We share the common vision, the common objective of Congressman Baker, to assist uninsured homeowners outside the flood plain," Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Powell's spokeswoman, D. J. Nordquist, said the administration was open to discussion if the community development money turned out to be insufficient.