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Report: Katrina response a 'failure of leadership'

Homeland Security secretary described as 'detached'

An upcoming congressional report on Katrina takes Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to task.


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A congressional report to be released this week slams the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, calling it a "failure of leadership" that left people stranded when they were most in need.

"Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," the report said. "At every level -- individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental -- we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina. In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw."

CNN obtained advance excerpts from a draft of the lengthy report titled "Failure of Initiative," which gives 90 recommendations for changes in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

The report is the result of a Republican 11-member House select committee that investigated the response to Katrina at the local, state and federal levels. (Poll: Are feds doing enough to rebuild?)

A staff member of the panel provided the excerpts, insisting on anonymity because the report will not be released until Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican of Connecticut and committee member, said Monday that the report is "very tough on the president, it's very tough on the Department of Homeland Security. It's a blistering report. But I think it's fair."

The president's homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, took issue with the suggestion that Bush not fully involved, saying the president was "hotly engaged" in the hurricane preparation efforts and in dealing with the storm's aftermath.

"I reject outright the suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved," she said.

"While we should not pull any punches in our assessment of what went wrong, it does a disservice to all when we judge in retrospect the decisions made and the action taken in the midst of a major disaster, without consideration of the fuller context."

The panel found that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was "detached" and that then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was "clueless," Shays said.

In one of the excerpts, Chertoff was chided for executing critical responsibilities "late, ineffectively or not at all."

Brown testified Friday before a Senate panel, saying he felt he had been made a scapegoat and blaming the government's slow response to Katrina largely on bureaucratic hassles. He also said the Department of Homeland Security was too focused on terrorism, to the detriment of preparations for natural disasters. (Full story)

Chertoff rejects criticism

In a speech to the National Emergency Management Association, a gathering of state-level first responders, in Alexandria, Virginia, Chertoff rejected that criticism and announced new steps to improve his department's ability to respond to disasters. The changes include a request for a 10 percent increase in FEMA's budget for 2007 and new systems to get relief supplies to disaster victims.

Most of the congressional report excerpts mentioning Bush complain that he failed to receive important information.

The House select panel's investigation was separate from the one run by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Democratic leadership refused to participate in the House panel, arguing it would be a whitewash for the White House -- an allegation Shays and other Republicans denied.

But Democratic Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson of Louisiana took part in the committee's hearings, writing in a separate report released over the weekend that the need for an independent investigation remains.

The House committee "worked diligently" to meet its mandate of conducting "a full and complete investigation," the two congressmen wrote. "But due to the committee's short deadline and the refusal of the White House to provide access to essential documents, key questions remain unanswered. We therefore renew our call for an independent commission to examine the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina."

The two lawmakers said the report "largely eschews direct responsibility."

The Democrats' report calls for Chertoff to be fired. Melancon and Jefferson wrote that the majority report fails to "draw the logical conclusion to its own findings and recommend Secretary Chertoff's removal from office. Our judgment, based on a careful review of the record, is that the Department of Homeland Security needs new and more experienced leadership."

A spokesman for Chertoff acknowledged problems with the Katrina response but called it is "outrageous" to suggest the secretary should be dismissed.

Panel: 'America is still not ready for prime time'

The House committee's report noted widespread failures among government agencies to share critical information in the wake of Katrina and equally widespread confusion over issues of responsibility.

But it also looked at the government's failure to respond to a catastrophe that had long been predicted.

"In many respects, our report is a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses and absurdities all cascading together, blinding us to what was coming and hobbling any collective effort to respond," one of the draft excerpts said.

"Too often there were too many cooks in the kitchen, and because of that the response to Katrina was at times overdone, at times underdone. Too often, because everybody was in charge, nobody was in charge," the committee said.

"If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not. Four and a half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time. This is particularly distressing because we know we remain at risk for terrorist attacks, and because the 2006 hurricane season is right around the corner."

Having a national response plan to deal with disasters "is not enough," the committee said.

"What's needed is a National Action Plan. Not a plan that says Washington will do everything, but one that says, when all else fails, the federal government must do something, whether it's formally requested or not. Not even the perfect bureaucratic storm of flaws and failures can wash away the fundamental governmental responsibility to protect public health and safety," the panel said.

While providing an indictment that could trigger change, the report does not necessarily contain any revelations, instead offering a series of recommendations. As the report noted, "What this committee has done is not rocket science."

Amid the horror of Katrina, the report said, some things went well when the hurricane struck August 29. In much of the Gulf Coast, evacuations went smoothly -- though the report found that declarations of a mandatory evacuation "were delayed or never made in metropolitan New Orleans."

The report also extolled moments of heroism by rescue officials in the wake of the storm.

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