Thursday, March 2, 2006

This week’s Associated Press reporting on the leaked Katrina briefing tapes contains a seemingly minor but actually quite significant factual error and subsequent hit job on President Bush. The reporting buried among sturdier assertions the claim that Mr. Bush was warned about possible breaches of the levees on Aug. 28-29, right before and during Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught on the Gulf Coast. In reality, he was warned about many potential problems on these tapes — but levee breaches weren’t among them. The AP reported this as though it were fact, and then uncritically quoted Democratic partisans who were only too happy to parrot it.

As the tapes show, the president was warned extensively about storm surges, water topping over the levees, flooding in addition to storm surges and the possibility of significant losses of life across the Gulf Coast. Clearly, warning signs were in place for a major disaster. “I’m sure it will be in the top 10 or 15 when all is said and done after the post-analysis,” said the half-prescient National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield.

But breaches? There was only one mention of breaches — which Mr. Mayfield raised briefly in a confused-sounding sentence only to dismiss the possibility. “Louisiana can talk a little bit more about this than I can, but it looks like the Federal levees around the City of New Orleans will not have been [incomprehensible] any breaches to,” he said on Aug. 29. This was the very day the levees were breached.

The previous day, Mr. Mayfield had actually dismissed the possibility of major flooding in New Orleans. “[T]he forecast we have now suggests that there will be minimal flooding in the city of New Orleans itself,” he said. Storm surges were the overwhelming preoccupation. “The big question is going to be: will that top some of the levees?”

In other words, if the president heard any predictions that the levees would be breached, or even reports of breaches as they occured, the evidence is nowhere on these leaked tapes.

This is significant. The levee breaches were the cause of most of the destruction in New Orleans. If it were true that Mr. Bush heard predictions of levee breaches before the storm hit, then that makes a despicable and costly lie of his statement four days after the hurricane that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breaches of the levees.” While that statement was plainly wrong — federal investigators had worried for years that the levees would fail in a major hurricane — it wasn’t a lie. The truth, instead, is that no adviser warned the president of the possibility that the levees could fail.

Of course, it makes a juicier story to suggest that the president was warned. “This administration was told what Louisiana already knew: that our federally constructed levees could certainly fail,” the AP uncritically quoted Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, as saying.

None of this excuses the president’s handling of the crisis. It does not excuse the plainly incapable officials who advised him. And it means little to the many victims of Hurricane Katrina who died, lost loved ones or their homes and livelihoods to the floodwater. But it does show that people calling the president a liar still have no evidence for their assertions. This was a case of mismanagement, not deception. The mainstream media is helping partisans obscure that fact.

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