- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The White House is crippling a Senate inquiry into the government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina by barring administration officials from answering questions and failing to hand over documents, senators leading the investigation said yesterday.

In some instances, staff at the White House and other federal agencies have refused to be interviewed by congressional investigators, said the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The White House had no immediate response.

“No one believes that the government responded adequately,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. “And we can’t put that story together if people feel they’re under a gag order from the White House.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s Republican chairman, said she respects the White House’s reluctance to reveal advice to President Bush from his top aides, which is generally covered by executive privilege.

Still, she criticized the dearth of information from agency officials about their contact with the White House.

“We are entitled to know if someone from the Department of Homeland Security calls someone at the White House during this whole crisis period,” Miss Collins said. “So I think the White House has gone too far in restricting basic information about who called whom on what day.”

“It is completely inappropriate” for the White House to bar agency officials from talking to the Senate committee, she said.

Miss Collins and Mr. Lieberman sidestepped questions about whether they plan to subpoena the White House to get the information they seek, though Miss Collins said she does not believe subpoenaing the Homeland Security Department is necessary.

The Senate inquiry is scheduled to conclude in March with a report detailing steps the federal government took — and didn’t take — to prepare for the Aug. 29 storm.

Investigators have interviewed more than 230 witnesses from federal, state and local governments and the private sector.

At a hearing yesterday, the Senate panel focused on lessons learned but apparently ignored from the 2004 Hurricane Pam exercise — a mock Category 3 storm designed to test preparedness levels in New Orleans. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane.

Additionally, the committee has received an estimated 500,000 documents — including e-mail, memos, supply orders and emergency operation plans — outlining Katrina-related communications at all levels of government.

But Mr. Lieberman described the Homeland Security Department response to committee requests as “too little, too late.”

Miss Collins offered a rosier view of the Homeland Security Department’s cooperation, noting that Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson and department Chief of Staff John Wood are scheduled to talk to investigators later this week. She also said the committee has been briefed about the federal response by White House deputy homeland security adviser Ken Rapuano.

A special House committee created to review of the government’s readiness for Katrina is expected to release its findings by Feb. 15.

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