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Former FEMA Chief Defends Response to Katrina

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now with a look at the political ramifications of today's testimony, we're joined by NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor, Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, as we just heard, everyone wants to know what the White House knew when. Is the White House on the defensive today?

WILLIAMS: Yes, they are, Madeleine, and it's, you know, it's interesting, Katrina continues to create political problems. A storm continues to blow through town. Remember just in the State of the Union, there was criticism that the President did not speak extensively about the major, you know, the most extensive storm ever to hit these shores. Then, of course, we had arguments over the level of spending and the commitment on the part of the Administration to rebuild that whole Gulf Coast region, and that brought protestors to Washington for the first time this week, protestors about a lack of commitment from the Administration to help that, help especially victims in that region. And now you have the New York Times story this morning making the case that the White House knew earlier than they had previously acknowledged about the extent of the flooding in the area.

Now there was a very contentious briefing from the White House. Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary today making the case that there's a difference between a levee break and trying to help people, and that even if the White House was informed of the levee break, it doesn't mean that they understood the extent of the flooding and that it would continue to be so damaging to so many homes and so many people.

BRAND: Well, until today, how successfully has the Bush Administration been in countering charges of incompetence and neglect?

WILLIAMS: Well, not very successful, as I said. I think that if you look at the polls, what you see is that most Americans feel that there was a failure, a massive failure on the part of the government to adequately deal with this problem, and as you heard, you know, in the previous report, you had people like Michael Brown making the case that he had sent emails, had conversations with high-ranking White House officials, there is no higher-ranking official than the President, emails to the President, to the White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and all indicating that it was going to be a bad one and making the case that they needed more supplies, more funds.

And so Michael Brown, who was the scapegoat initially, seems to have decided to testify, and there was some question as to whether he would testify today, largely to try to save his own name.

BRAND: And in other news, President Bush was out yesterday defending his response to 9/11 and issues of terrorism, and he gave a speech saying that there was a terrorist attack that his Administration thwarted in Los Angeles. And tell us about that.

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean he's making the case, you know, sort of in the context of the ongoing conversation about the Patriot Act, and it looks as of there's a compromise now that will allow the Senate to vote to extend that Patriot Act. He's also making this speech in the context of the fact that, you know, the polls indicate that this issue, the ability to handle terrorism, to fight terrorism, is the GOP's strongest hand in upcoming elections.

Karl Rove, the President's political advisor, has said just that. And he's also doing it in the context of arguments over whether or not the White House should have the ability to place wiretaps without getting court authorization. Fran Townsend, the terrorism aid to the President, refuses to say whether or not wiretaps were involved in disclosing or stopping this attack in Los Angeles, Madeleine, but I think the inference is there, or she hopes that people get that inference and back off in terms of requiring more.

Senator Specter has been talking about, for example, insisting that the White House go to the FEMA court and justify the need for any warrant, any wiretapping, I should say.

BRAND: The FISA court. All this is taking place of course in the context of an election year, and you mentioned the latest poll. Tell us more about that. How is the public reacting?

WILLIAMS: Well, the public is, you know, if you look at the Pugh poll just out, the Pugh poll indicates now, nine months before November, a midterm race, that Democrats hold a substantial lead, about 50 to 41 in the overall horserace. You know, do you prefer a Democrat or Republican? It's the Democrats that are being preferred. And one thing, Madeleine, four years ago Independents were evenly divided, Republican and Democrat. At the moment, those Independents have a 19 point preference for Democrats. So you can see, Democrats are the ones benefiting at the moment.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams. Thanks a lot, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.