Monday, May 18, 2009

Rumsfeld and Katrina

There is a lot of interesting anecdotes in Robert Draper’s article in GQ about what was going on in the world of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but Steve Benen points out a passage in the article that illustrates both his irascibility and his insensitivity to the victims of Hurricane Katrina by his refusal to go to extraordinary lengths to help them after the storm.

As Draper explained, there were search-and-rescue helicopters available for New Orleans, but Rumsfeld refused to approve their deployment, despite the belief from the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina that they were needed.

[T]hree years later, when I asked a top White House official how he would characterize Rumsfeld’s assistance in the response to Hurricane Katrina, I found out why. “It was commonly known in the West Wing that there was a battle with Rumsfeld regarding this,” said the official. “I can’t imagine another defense secretary throwing up the kinds of obstacles he did.”

Though various military bases had been mobilized into a state of alert well before the advance team’s tour, Rumsfeld’s aversion to using active-duty troops was evident: “There’s no doubt in my mind,” says one of Bush’s close advisers today, “that Rumsfeld didn’t like the concept.”

The next day, three days after landfall, word of disorder in New Orleans had reached a fever pitch. According to sources familiar with the conversation, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff called Rumsfeld that morning and said, “You’re going to need several thousand troops.”

“Well, I disagree,” said the SecDef. “And I’m going to tell the president we don’t need any more than the National Guard.”

After the president had returned to the White House, he eventually convened a meeting in the Situation Room to discuss the government’s response. Bush barked, “Rumsfeld, what the hell is going on there? Are you watching what’s on television? Is that the United States of America or some Third World nation I’m watching? What the hell are you doing?

It took another two days before the Secretary demurred and sent in the troops.

What a guy.