Wednesday, January 25, 2006

White House accused of foot-dragging in Katrina probe

White House accused of foot-dragging in Katrina probe

By Donna Smith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the top Democrat on the Senate panel investigating the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, on Tuesday accused administration officials of failing to cooperate and trying to run out the clock on the congressional probe.

"The problems begin at the White House, where there has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation we have a responsibility to do," Lieberman said in a hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

The Connecticut Democrat said the administration has delivered few of the documents requested by the committee and hindered it's ability to obtain information from agencies involved in preparing and responding to the hurricane.

"There's been no assertion of executive privilege; just a refusal to answer," Lieberman said.

"My staff believes that (the Department of Homeland Security) has engaged in a conscious strategy of slow walking our investigation in the hope that we would run out of time to follow the investigation's natural progression to where it leads."

The committee has held several hearings on Katrina and chairman Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said it is entering the final phase of the probe. The next few hearings will focus on the "most troubling aspects" of the response to the hurricane, which devastated Gulf coast states and flooded New Orleans.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted the administration was cooperating with the probe. "There are thousands of documents that have been provided to the committee, there are numerous administration officials who have gone before the committee and testified," he said.

But Lieberman said key documents were missing that could explain why a Department of Homeland Security warning about the potential dangers of the storm went unheeded.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency document dated August 27 -- two days before the storm hit -- warned of the potential for heavy damage, widespread power outages and possible flooding in New Orleans.

Lieberman said the White House received the report several hours before the storm made landfall.

"What happened to that report?" he asked. "Why was the President left so uninformed that he said four days later: 'I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.'"