Storm Warning: More Katrina Critique

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After a week that ended with former FEMA Director Michael Brown contradicting the White House's previous statements that it wasn't aware of the full extent of the flooding in New Orleans until the Tuesday after Hurricane Katrina hit, the last thing the Bush Administration wants to hear is more about the federal government's inept response to the nation's worst natural disaster ever.

Unfortunately, that's just what it will get this week. While Congress will spend some time starting to dig deep into the President's proposed fiscal 2007 budget and surely chatter on about the controversial wiretapping program, the communication breakdown surrounding Katrina will continue to dominate the discussion in the nation's capital.

The House Homeland Security Committee will release on Wednesday a blistering report on the federal government's preparation for and response to Katrina. Material leaked to the Associated Press this weekend charges the Administration with "fecklessness, flailing and organizational paralysis" before, during and after the storm. Senate investigators damn the federal response at all levels, and flag structural conflicts between agencies that will demand administrative or legislative fixes.

Later this week, Bush's Homeland Security Secretary chief, Michael Chertoff, takes the hotseat in the final Senate hearings on Hurricane Katrina. Senators will ask Chertoff to explain the agency's performance during the disaster, his own knowledge of events, and, possibly, why cable news reporters appeared to know more about the decaying scene inside the New Orleans Convention Center than the department.

Chertoff may also have to answer tough questions about Defense Department-Homeland Security cooperation raised by a Pentagon official during last week's hearings. Paul McHale, Pentagon's assistant secretary for Homeland Security, testified last Thursday about inherent conflicts among federal authorities: the Homeland Security Department's role as coordinating hub for national disasters and the military's direct line of authority from the President. Keep non-Defense officials outside of the traditional chain-of-command, McHale argued: "Placing a FEMA official or a DHS official in command—placing that civilian [from] outside the Department of Defense within the military chain of command violates [the 1986] Goldwater-Nichols [Act] and is a bad idea. You can decide whether or not it would have been a good idea for [FEMA Director Michael] Brown to have command authority over General Honore's forces in New Orleans."

Homeland Security's level of cooperation with the Justice Department may also come under scrutiny. At last week's hearings, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who is ranking member of the committee, raised concerns about the Homeland Security Department's failure to coordinate timely deployment of DOJ law enforcement personnel, such as FBI or ATF officers, to the region. Michael Brown, who resigned in disgrace shortly after the Katrina disaster, lambasted the Homeland Security Department's response during his own testimony last Friday. Considering how tough the former Bush pal known as Brownie was on the Bush Administration's bungled response, the White House must shudder to think how rough his real opponents on Capitol Hill will be.