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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from New Orleans for this article.