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Lieberman: White House hindering Katrina probe



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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House is dodging questions about Hurricane Katrina response and has instructed other agencies to join it in fending off investigators, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said on Tuesday. The White House denies the allegations.

Lieberman went so far as to suggest that the Department of Homeland Security is trying to kill the investigation.

"My staff believes that DHS 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," Lieberman said. "At this point, I cannot disagree."

The Connecticut senator, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, further said no real reason is being given for the administration's reticence.

"There's been no assertion of executive privilege, just a refusal to answer," Lieberman said. "I have been told by my staff that almost every question our staff has asked federal agency witnesses regarding conversations with or involvement of the White House has been met with a response that they could not answer on direction of the White House."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said administration officials have provided thousands of documents and numerous interviews to congressional investigators, "and we will continue to work with the committees in a cooperative way to make sure they have the information they need to do their job."

Documents released by the committee show that top federal officials warned the White House hours before Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast that the storm would likely cause breaches in the protective levees around New Orleans, Louisiana.

"Any storm rated Category 4 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson scale will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months," a Department of Homeland Security report warned August 28, the day before Katrina came ashore at the Louisiana-Mississippi state line.

The documents were released as the Senate committee prepares for a hearing on the response to Katrina, which killed hundreds in the two states and left about 80 percent of New Orleans under water when portions of three levees failed. The breach of the levees was predicted by a 2004 emergency management simulation called the "Hurricane Pam exercise."

The White House Situation Room received the Homeland Security warning at 1:47 a.m. on August 29, Lieberman said. Yet President Bush, days later, made a seemingly contradictory statement to a reporter.

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

Lieberman, who recently has become a White House ally on many issues, said the committee has been unable to answer either of those questions because "the White House has produced just a very small portion of the documents we requested."

"They have opposed efforts to interview their personnel, and they have hindered our ability to obtain information from other federal agencies regarding White House actions in response to Katrina," the senator said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that he would not provide "a play-by-play analysis" until a White House review of the Katrina response was complete. The review, which is being led by the president's homeland security adviser Frances Townsend, should be finished soon, McClellan said.

However, McClellan denied allegations that the White House ignored warnings about Katrina and said Bush's statement about the levees was referring to initial media reports that New Orleans had been spared the worst.

"There were numerous media reports saying that New Orleans had dodged the bullet, and I can pull those up for you and show you those," McClellan said, "so that's what the president was referring to."

Sen. Susan Collins, the Senate committee's chairman, said that the Hurricane Pam exercise in 2004 predicted the problems Katrina would pose to local, state and federal authorities "with eerie accuracy."

"It seems that a more appropriate name for Pam would have been Cassandra, the mythical prophet who warned of disasters but who no one really believed," said Collins, R-Maine. "Pam became Katrina. The simulation became reality, and optimism became the awful truth: We were not prepared."

Lieberman added that any stonewalling during the investigation could lead to more lack of preparation as a new hurricane season begins in June.

Though some agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been cooperative, other agencies -- like the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services -- have ignored the committee's requests or produced substantially less than was requested, the senator said.

"HHS has not produced a single requested witness for an interview," Lieberman said. "It took until two weeks ago for DHS to give us a single witness the Committee requested outside of FEMA or the Coast Guard to interview."

While FEMA has been helpful, Mike Brown -- the former FEMA director who resigned amid intense criticism of his agency's response -- has refused to answer even the simplest questions, Lieberman added.

"Indeed, at yesterday's staff interview of former FEMA Director Michael Brown, agency lawyers advised Mr. Brown not to say whether he spoke to the president or the vice president, or comment on the substance of conversations he had with any other high level White House officials," Lieberman said.

The White House spokesman added that Bush has acknowledged that "all levels of government dropped the ball to an extent," emphasizing that the president "accepts responsibility for the federal response effort."

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