WASHINGTON - The White House was beset by the "fog of war" in the crucial days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, leaving it unable to respond properly to the unfolding catastrophe, House investigators said Friday after getting the most detailed briefing yet on how President Bush's staff had handled the events.
The closed-door briefing, attended mostly by House committee aides, was provided by Kenneth Rapuano, who as Mr. Bush's deputy domestic security adviser was the senior official in charge of managing storm events at the White House when the hurricane struck. The meeting was a compromise, a result of White House objections to the investigators' requests for copies of e-mail messages and other correspondence from top presidential aides.
Mr. Rapuano, those present said, acknowledged that he left the White House about 10 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, the night the storm hit. Some two hours later, the White House received a report indicating that a major levee in New Orleans had been breached and that most of the city had already been flooded. The report was sent by an official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who had flown over the city late that afternoon.
But Mr. Rapuano said that before he left that night, the White House received a separate report from the Army Corps of Engineers saying an evaluation of the levees was still under way.
The White House, Mr. Rapuano said, finally received confirmation about the levee breach about 6 a.m. on Tuesday, the morning after it occurred. But even then, it does not appear that word got immediately to Mr. Bush, who was on vacation and who later said that he had had a "sense of relaxation" and had thought the city had "dodged a bullet."
"We are left with a picture of a White House that was plagued by the fog of war," said David Marin, the Republican staff director to the House committee investigating the government's response to the hurricane. "The committee is likely to find a disturbing inability by the White House to de-conflict and analyze information and that had consequences."
Trent Duffy, the deputy White House press secretary, who also attended the briefing, acknowledged that all levels of the government had suffered from a lack of clarity about the events as they developed.
"There was a lack of situational awareness at all levels," Mr. Duffy said in an interview on Friday. "That is one of the biggest lessons everyone in emergency preparedness has learned because of the storm."
With the House not yet in session, only one lawmaker from the investigative committee its chairman, Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia was present for the briefing. Mr. Rapuano told him and the staff investigators that the White House role had been to monitor the situation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, were operationally in charge, he said.
The investigators expressed frustration that the White House did not seem to have been more actively involved. But Mr. Duffy, echoing a point made by Mr. Rapuano, said: "The White House should not be making combat decisions in Iraq. The same is true for a domestic emergency response."
The committee staff members also asked why it had taken Mr. Bush until the following Saturday, nearly a week after the storm, to order a large number of federal troops to the Gulf Coast.
Mr. Rapuano said that the Pentagon had already started to send troops and that in fact 5,000 of them had arrived by that point.
Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, had asked for many more three days earlier, but Mr. Rapuano said the problem was that she had not provided specifics as to what kind of troops she needed.
If the investigators cannot determine, through either testimony or written correspondence, what various presidential aides knew, and when, it will be hard to pinpoint where failures occurred within the White House, said Mr. Marin, the staff director for the House committee.
"There is a difference between having enough information to find institutional fault, which we have," he said, "and having information to assign individual blame, which in large part we don't."
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