Video: Sen. John McCain

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updated 9/21/2005 9:05:15 AM ET 2005-09-21T13:05:15

John McCain learned some serious lessons after Hurricane Katrina.

According to the Arizona Senator, the government has placed too much emphasis on the risks of terror attacks rather than natural disasters. 

On Tuesday, he appeared on 'Hardball' to discuss the issue of leadership in the Katrina recovery effort with MSNBC-TV's Chris Matthews.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST: Senator McCain, we have not had you on since Katrina hit.  What have you learned that we have been doing wrong in getting ready for these major natural disasters? 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-ARIZ.): Everything.  We have made serious mistakes. 

I think it is clear that, to state the obvious, that we had probably placed too much emphasis on a terrorist attack verses a natural disaster.  And there were many mistakes that were made, including lack of communications capability, a lack of coordination between the different levels of governments, all the things that I have been watching you talk about for the last couple of weeks, Chris. 

But, primarily, I think the focus perhaps was misplaced to a degree over to countering a terrorist attack, as opposed to handling a natural disaster. 

MATTHEWS: If you were president, would you name somebody from the Arabian Horse Association to head FEMA? 

MCCAIN: Well, somebody said no -- well, at least no Arabian horses died. 

No, I -- no, I wouldn‘t.  But I also would seriously consider, if I were president, the appointment of now an overall administrator that everybody could look to.  I am told that there are still problems of coordination between state, local, federal officials. 

I think you should have a go-to guy.  I think Rudy Giuliani would be a great one for it, Colin Powell, General Tommy Franks, maybe Jack Welch or  Lou Gerstner, one of those people who is used to administering bureaucracies.  We probably need that now. 

MATTHEWS: Why do you think the vice president opposes such an action? 

MCCAIN: I didn‘t know that he did. 

MATTHEWS: Yes, he does. 

MCCAIN: Well, I had heard that the administration was considering such a move, but I didn‘t know... 

MATTHEWS: He doesn‘t want a name brand named, a big fellow like you mentioned.  You mentioned four or five people that could be president.  And, apparently, the vice president is not interested in having somebody of that stature fill this position. 

MCCAIN: Well, I don‘t know anything about that. 

But I know that the vice president has the highest priority of getting this crisis handled, not only for the good of the nation, but for the good of this administration. 

MATTHEWS: What about getting FEMA outside of Homeland Security.  You mentioned we put too much emphasis on the homeland security part, the anti-terrorist function.  Do we need to have two different departments, two different agencies handling the terrorist challenge and the natural disaster? 

MCCAIN: Probably, you need to take it back out. 

But, look, Chris, isn‘t the moral of the story here, you know, you can shuffle boxes around on the organizational chart, but unless you really give enough priority, assets and talents to the task, that is secondary?  In other words, suppose that FEMA inside the Department of Homeland Security had focused enough attention on taking care of natural disasters, had had the qualified kind of leadership that it needs.  We might not be arguing about moving the boxes around. 

So, it makes me a little bit uneasy by saying, OK, let‘s take it out of DHS and then everything is going to be OK.  Do you see my point? 

MATTHEWS: Yes. 

You know, of the things that‘s been reported on about Louisiana is, it is guilty of the same kinds of things we are seeing at the federal level, cronyism, where somebody happens to be a friend of Joe Allbaugh, who was head of FEMA at one point and his roommate in college and so gets the job. 

... In Louisiana, you see all kinds of family relationships.  You have got Mitch Landrieu as the lieutenant governor.  The senator is Mary Landrieu.  And everybody seems to be related.  They‘re all buddies with each other, and rampant corruption, historically, down in that part of the country.  Is that going to be a challenge?  I mean, are you happy sending a lot of money to Louisiana? 

MCCAIN: I am happy sending a lot of money to Louisiana.  But this is one of the arguments for the administrator.  ...  Look, I don‘t think you can funnel all the money direct from the federal government to whoever the recipient is.  But you have also got to have accountability.  There has not been one disaster that I can remember where there wasn‘t a lot of money wasted.  Maybe we could do it a little better this time. 

Also, there is Mississippi and Alabama as well that have to be handled.  So, am I uncomfortable when I read that there is a different governmental entity for every levee?  Yes. 

And some of the expenses, like a fountain of lights ... but, also, isn‘t it also true, Chris, that, even though Louisiana got the largest amount of Corps of Engineers money, a whole lot of that went to pork-barrel projects, rather than what would have been judged by an objective observer as higher priorities? 

MATTHEWS: Yes.  The other question I raised with the local head of the Corps of Engineers was, do we know there wasn‘t graft in building of those flood walls down there, because they gave way right across the board.  Nobody can figure out what happened to the materials, the construction.  He said it was an open question, whether we were seeing some graft here, the old trick of six inches of concrete for eight inches of payment. 

MCCAIN: Well, also, isn‘t it true that some of these projects actually contributed dramatically to the erosion of the wetlands, which, as you know, requires certain condition ...  as opposed to preserving them?

Now we are looking at a $14 billion tab for the reconstruction of the wetlands, without which, in the view of many experts, you‘re never going to be able to protect New Orleans provide it with increased protection.  I have seen the pictures of the erosion of the wetlands over the last 10 years.  It is dramatic. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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