Another Perspective

A Pattern of Blindness

The Bush years remind us over and over that government -- when it matters most --doesn't work.

By 2.6.06

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"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," explained Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice regarding the striking victory by the militant group Hamas in the recent Palestinian election.

Good question. It's not like Ms. Rice's department was blindsided by a surprise election in Botswana or some other place of no consequence in the administration's battle to neutralize the evildoers of this world. This was front-line territory grabbed by a top terrorist group.

Gallup could have probably called the election correctly to within a point or two with 10 pollsters in the field for two days. The State Department, in contrast, couldn't see it coming with a $30 billion budget and 30,000 employees.

It was the same with Katrina. Three days after the storm hit, the official word from the White House was that the storm's horrendous damage was unexpected and unpredicted. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," explained President Bush.

In fact, detailed warnings about Hurricane Katrina's probable impact, including forecasts of breached levees, massive flooding and major losses of life and property, were steadily flowing into the White House for 48 hours before the storm made landfall.

A warning from the Department of Homeland Security the day before Katrina hit predicted that a storm rated Category 4 or greater "will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months." Katrina made landfall, as predicted, at Category 4 strength.

In Senate hearings, William Lokey, the chief of response operations at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, testified that he was unaware of the offer from the Interior Department to send planes, trucks, boats, and personnel to help rescue Katrina's victims. In addition, state and city officials, in what appeared to be a turf war between politicians, turned down federal assistance in the early and critical stages of the storm.

"Communications and coordination was lacking, preplanning was lacking," explained Lokey. "We were not prepared for this."

In short, the lack of government preplanning rose to the level of being criminally negligent, the federal government's top "coordinating" officer wasn't coordinating, and the politicians busied themselves bickering about who should run the rescue efforts that weren't occurring.

Today, after more than 1,300 Katrina-related deaths and more than 3,200 people still officially unaccounted for, a Senate inquiry into the government's response to Katrina has been effectively crippled by a White House gag order that prohibits administration officials and presidential advisers from testifying before Congress.

Defending the administration's decision to withhold documents and testimony, White House spokesman Trent Duffy explained that the White House is seeking to "preserve any president's ability to get advice from advisers on a confidential basis."

Go back to July 2001, two months before the attack of Sept. 11, and the same government ineptness was on full display in the FBI. Kenneth Williams, a counterterrorism agent in the FBI's office in Phoenix -- who'd done previous duty with the Osama bin Laden unit of the FBI's international terrorism section -- noticed a large number of suspects signing up for flight training. A lengthy memo from the Phoenix FBI office to the agency's Washington headquarters warning that bin Laden might be using flight schools in the United States was wholly ignored by the D.C. bureaucracy.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Michael Hirsch reported in May 2002 that the missed signal from Phoenix was just "part of a whole summer of missed clues that, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001."

The failures were at every level, explained Isikoff and Hirsch, "from the shortcomings in the law-enforcement trenches -- the FBI's poor record at domestic surveillance, the CIA's poor record at infiltrating Islamic groups and the lack of cooperation between the two agencies -- to the fixed strategic mind-set of the Bush administration."

On August 6, five weeks prior to the September 11 attack, President Bush received a "presidential daily brief" at his Crawford ranch that specifically pointed to the threat of al-Qaeda hijacking airplanes within the United States.

In Senate testimony eight months after the attack, Secretary of State Rice declared, "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."

And who could have predicted that Hamas would win, or that the levees wouldn't hold? Anyone see a pattern?

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.