Investigating Katrina

There is only one right way to perform an investigation of the Katrina disaster: keep the politicians out of it.

| Tue Nov. 1, 2005 3:00 AM EST

Article created by the Center for Defense Information

Both Republicans and Democrats are well into their finger-pointing over the horrors in New Orleans in early September.  The nation’s capital has been awash with proposals to study the disaster and lay blame.  Recent history demonstrates why every model suggested for the investigation is a phony.

Particularly transparent is the “Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee” proposed by the Republican congressional leadership, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.  Their effort would include Democrats but only as a minority, thereby preventing Democrats from issuing subpoenas and calling witnesses.  With partisan votes in the House and Senate, the Republicans are imposing their will.

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The Democrats want independent investigatory powers, but after hearing House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., shrilly demand numerous Republican resignations in advance of any investigation, does anyone seriously think a Democrat-controlled investigation will be any better? 

Vice President Richard Cheney elegantly described the Republican-controlled charade as bipartisan and bicameral, modeled on the Iran-Contra Investigation he served on as a House Member in the mid-1980s.  That exercise culminated in convictions of officials in the Reagan presidency, i.e. Republicans; so that must be a good model, right?  It probably slipped Cheney’s mind that the Iran-Contra examination was run by Democrats. 

Like the other proposals, the Iran-Contra study had a fatal flaw: it was run by members of Congress.  Either a whitewash or an easily dismissible partisan swipe is the predicable result, depending on who controls the White House and Congress.  Despite a long and distinguished history of competent investigations, today’s Congress is incapable of performing a proficient inquiry under its own control. 

Visit a congressional hearing, especially one on national security, where you’d expect some seriousness.  The hearing will start with long and decorous “opening statements” by the chairman and ranking Democrat.  The more important the hearing, the more likely every member present will insist on giving a speech of equal length, either before the witness testifies or when it is that member’s turn to ask questions. 

Once the witness has testified – his or her statement usually limited to 10 or fewer minutes – the hearing gets to its oversight. The inquisitors are usually limited to about six minutes apiece, and in those cases when a member chooses not to give a speech, questions usually come in one of two forms. 

In the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, questions will often be about defense spending in the questioner’s home state (pork).  When not about pork, the question is often read directly, or paraphrased, from a staff memo.  Such mouthed inquiries alert the witness that the questioner literally does not know what he or she is talking about and the respondent can get away with vague, if not misleading, answers. It is an opportunity seized all too often.  I have frequently listened to non-answers, waiting for an informed questioner to pounce, citing facts. 

Such exchanges are extremely rare.  Much more often, a congressional questioner will follow up with another scripted question, moving on, robotically, to another subject and a new opportunity for non-oversight.

Given the partisan stakes at issue with Katrina -- and the opportunity for more flood, hurricane, tornado, fire and other calamity spending for members’ home states -- there is little reason to expect a departure from the familiar pattern of porking, posturing, and studied ignorance. 

That leaves the other type of inquiry:  the non-congressional commission.  President George W. Bush has proposed one, but the Democrats, with reason, sense a whitewash.  More adept is presidential hopeful Sen. Hilary Clinton’s, D-N.Y., suggestion of a 9/11-type commission.  The original 9/11 Commission wowed everybody with its adult behavior. 

But, the 9/11 Commission was run by politicians, a former Republican governor and a retired Democratic congressman -- a model to be avoided now.  And, in hindsight, that commission’s stature has shriveled.  We now know it rejected, as inconsistent with its preferred findings, evidence that some of the 9/11 terrorists were known to the Defense Department before the attacks.  More troubling, we also know today the commission’s staff director now serves as a senior adviser to the very same Condoleezza Rice, as secretary of state, that he was investigating when she was White House National Security Adviser.

There is only one right way to perform an investigation of the Katrina disaster:  Eschew the politicians -- from both parties.  Find instead people with lesser political motives who also have real expertise.  The last Clinton FEMA director, James Lee Whitt, and the first Bush one, Joseph Albaugh, certainly have their personal political biases, but they both also performed in the job with enough competence to know a real answer from a dodge.  Moreover, give them a professional staff, perhaps career professionals from FEMA’s Inspector General, and bar that staff from ever accepting a political appointment.  Then, perhaps we will have an inquiry we can trust.