Video: Katrina tapes fact check

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/2/2006 7:50:52 PM ET 2006-03-03T00:50:52

The public release of confidential video shot during high-level government briefings about Hurricane Katrina touched off a new partisan skirmish Thursday.

As some Democrats called for a new probe into the federal response to the massive August storm, the White House issued a point-by-point press release defending the Bush administration’s actions during Katrina.

The Associated Press obtained the government video and made it public Wednesday, offering Americans, who have witnessed months of post-disaster fingerpointing and political recriminations, their own inside glimpse into the government’s fateful final Katrina preparations. Video from Aug. 28 showed President Bush appearing confident and his homeland security chief appearing relaxed.

But warnings of the coming destruction — breached or overrun levees, deaths at the New Orleans Superdome and overwhelming needs for post-storm rescues — were delivered in dramatic terms to all involved.

“My gut tells me ... this is a bad one and a big one,” then-federal disaster chief Michael Brown told the final government-wide briefing the day before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

Reid, Pelosi blast administration
The video prompted Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill to reiterate their calls for a new investigation into the federal response to Katrina. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Thursday the video “points out the need for an independent commission” to review events surrounding the hurricane.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the video “confirms what we have suspected all along, that this administration did anything they can to hide what really happened.” He said the administration “systematically misled the American people.”

The White House promptly issued a detailed press release headlined “Setting The Record Straight,” which began: “The President’s participation in the August 28 videoconference was open to the press, and the full transcript of this videoconference was released to Congress and the public in the fall of 2005.  President Bush participated in briefings, phone calls and conversations throughout this process, and his Administration was focused on making sure that the Federal assets were in place to help the people of New Orleans.  The President has made clear — as recently as this Tuesday — that he was not satisfied with the Federal response. That is why he ordered a comprehensive ‘lessons learned’ report and plans to work aggressively to implement improvements to our disaster response plans by the start of hurricane season.”

Democrats ‘falsely’ attacking Bush
The balance of the press release cited more than a dozen official statements and media reports that it said countered the Democrats' use of the newly released video "to falsely attack the White House’s Hurricane Katrina response."

The Republican-controlled House and Senate have conducted separate investigations of the Katrina response. Democrats in the House, other than those from the affected states, refused to participate in the inquiry, insisting that an independent commission was needed.

In the Aug. 29 briefing, Bush didn’t ask a single question but assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: “We are fully prepared.”

But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the video shows that the administration failed to prepare adequately for the possible breach of the levees protecting New Orleans.

“This administration was told what Louisiana already knew: that our federally constructed levees could certainly fail,” she said. “But these concerns, and others made by disaster relief experts, fell on deaf ears.”

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield disputed this.

“Nobody talked about the possibility of a levee breech or failure until after it happened,” Mayfield told NBC News. “I am about the least political person you could imagine, but on this point, I think the president is getting a bad rap,” referring to accusations that Bush might be lying when he said he was not warned of a possible levee failure.

“I warned only that the levees might be overtopped,” Mayfield said.

Immediately after the release of the video on Wednesday, the White House and Homeland Security Department urged the public not to read too much into the footage.

Bush ‘was completely engaged’
“I hope people don’t draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing,” Bush spokesman Trent Duffy said, citing a variety of orders and disaster declarations Bush signed before the storm made landfall. “He received multiple briefings from multiple officials, and he was completely engaged at all times.”

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said his department would not release the full set of videotaped briefings, saying most transcripts — though not the videotapes — from the sessions were provided to congressional investigators months ago.

“There’s nothing new or insightful on these tapes,” Knocke said. “We actively participated in the lessons-learned review and we continue to participate in the Senate’s review and are working with them on their recommendation.”

NBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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