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Bush taps Townsend to lead Katrina inquiry

White House tells Cabinet to give probe 'the highest priority'

From Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

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Frances Townshend has been tapped to lead the White House investigation into the response to Hurricane Katrina.

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White House
George W. Bush
Hurricane Katrina

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush has tapped homeland security adviser Frances Townsend to lead an internal inquiry into the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, but leading Democrats renewed calls for an independent probe.

Townsend, who leads the president's homeland security council, will follow up on Bush's promise two weeks ago to figure out what went wrong in sending federal help to the regions devastated by the August 29 hurricane, the White House said.

She does not yet have a deadline or time frame for the inquiry, but she will be sitting down with Cabinet secretaries "in the next few days" to talk about how to move forward on completing it, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told CNN.

He said White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told all Cabinet secretaries last week that Townsend would lead the internal investigation, and had asked them to "give participation in the inquiry the highest priority."

Victims and public officials in the hurricane-stricken region accused federal agencies of botching the response to Katrina, which struck near the Mississippi-Louisiana state line. Nearly 1,000 deaths have been blamed on the Category 4 hurricane, which left much of New Orleans flooded and demolished beach towns along the Mississippi coast.

While Bush administration allies tried to deflect blame toward state and local officials, the outcry prompted the reassignment and subsequent resignation of Michael Brown, Bush's Federal Emergency Management Agency director. Democrats have called for an independent inquiry into the response to the disaster, a step favored by 81 percent of those surveyed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said Townsend "may be a very competent individual. But how in the world can we get to the truth of the question as to what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina -- how can we really hope to discover the incompetence that led to all this human suffering and devastation -- if the administration is going to investigate itself?"

But White House spokesman Trent Duffy promised the White House investigation will be "robust," and said there will also be a congressional probe -- although congressional leaders appeared unable to move forward with plans for an inquiry by House and Senate members Tuesday.

Duffy called Townsend one of those "hardened and experienced government officials."

"Her credentials are impeccable. She worked across party lines in the past and she is the perfect and natural point person for this exercise," he added.

Durbin, the Senate minority whip, also questioned why deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, is playing a significant role in reconstruction efforts.

"Putting Karl Rove in charge makes no sense whatsoever," Durbin said. "He has no resume and no skills other than running political campaigns -- and if he is being put in place to protect the president politically, that decision does not serve the best interests of the American people, nor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina."

But Duffy said Rove -- a controversial figure Bush has dubbed the architect of his presidential campaigns -- is "part of the policy apparatus of the White House." He said the president, not Rove, would be leading the administration's effort.

"This is not about Karl Rove, it's about helping the victims of Katrina. That is what the administration is focused on," he said. "If others want to engage in the worst kind of politics, that's their business. We don't believe that contributes to the recovery effort."

Townsend was tapped because she heads the president's homeland security council. Townsend was appointed to her position by President Bush in 2004 after serving as the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism. Before arriving at the White House, she served in various intelligence positions at the Coast Guard and the Justice Department. She began her career as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York, in 1985.

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