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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Obfuscating the news

WHITE House political antennae appear to be very sensitive to at least one phenomenon - impending public relations disasters. The bad news in this case was a New York Times report that while the President's staff was warned as early as Monday evening, Aug. 29, 2005, that flood waters had breached levees in New Orleans, White House officials professed ignorance of that fact well into the next day, even though time was of the essence in dealing with the disaster.

The truth was bound to come out, but when it did last week the West Wing staff had a contingency plan: a speech by President Bush revealing details of a supposedly foiled plot by al-Qaeda to crash an airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, the tallest building on the West Coast. Mr. Bush said the terrorists were thwarted by "the combined efforts of several countries to break up this plot."

As propagandists, the folks in the White House are experts. Whenever they sense bad news, they invoke 9/11 and the terrorist threat, even though the basic facts of the attempt on the Los Angeles tower had been disclosed earlier. This time it drew headlines in some newspapers on a day when no one story dominated the news, and overshadowed revelations about what the President knew about the breach of the New Orleans levees and when he knew it.

This sort of official obfuscation works because the President of the United States is a guaranteed newsmaker. One recalls the advertising tagline used by a now defunct brokerage firm: "When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen." But it does not appear that disaster relief officials, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and its hapless former director, Michael Brown, the Homeland Security Department, or the vacationing President were listening to early warnings about the damage Katrina was wreaking along the Gulf Coast.

The Times story also reminds us that the danger to New Orleans was forecast with stunning accuracy in 2002 by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. There has been a lively debate over what the White House and federal disaster officials knew (or perhaps when they found it convenient to forget what they knew) about the early hours of the Katrina disaster on that fateful Monday.

A Senate inquiry, headed by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, has been working diligently to put the story together, and it does not add up to a flattering picture of the federal, state, or local responses to the storm. Unfortunately, Americans have become inured to the disregard of the truth by government officials.

The congressional investigators should continue to press for details relentlessly, although a bipartisan commission along the lines of the body that probed the attacks on New York and Washington might be better.

Like the terrorist attack, the aftermath of Katrina will occupy the attention and the financial resources of all levels of government for years to come. The whole story deserves to be told, so that this country can prevent such disasters or mitigate their effects.

That cannot happen until the story is told succinctly and accurately, regardless of efforts to distract the public with more scare tactics.

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