He didn't ask anything

March 03, 2006

This has been a truly extraordinary week in the continuing disaster known as Katrina.

First, six months after the hurricane laid waste to New Orleans, Katrina survivors somehow managed to stage their signature celebration, Mardi Gras - providing a stirring display of homegrown resilience.

Second, Americans got to watch a leaked video of President Bush getting thoroughly briefed on the impending catastrophe the day before the massive storm hit New Orleans and then assuring Gulf Coast disaster planners: "We are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm" - which turned out to be a sadly hollow promise.

No one who watches the Aug. 28 video of Mr. Bush in a conference room at his Texas ranch receiving briefings - from Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Max Mayfield, of the National Hurricane Center - can say the president wasn't warned.

Mr. Bush was directly told that the approaching storm was frighteningly dangerous, New Orleans' levees might not hold, and there was a big potential for catastrophic damage and deaths - warnings that, of course, turned out to be sadly prophetic.

And here's the rub: The president sat and listened, but his level of interest was such that he didn't ask a single question. Not one. Not about anything.

Apart from Mr. Bush's even more devastating bait-and-switch on Iraq, can there be any graver indictment of this president?

As might be expected, the White House responded this week that Mr. Bush was, indeed, on the ball back then, "completely engaged at all times," according to a spokesman, who added: "I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing."

In the past, federal Department of Homeland Security officials have said the "fog of war" kept them from grasping and promptly reacting to the disaster. Mr. Brown, who became the administration's chief scapegoat, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the real problem was a different kind of fog, that of bureaucracy.

We recognize that there likely is a lot of truth to both statements. But most troubling is a third kind of fog - that displayed at one end of a briefing-room table in Crawford.

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