Fox News host Brit Hume continued to tout the Associated Press' misleading March 3 "clarification" of a previous article about a pre-Katrina presidential briefing as justification for President Bush's claim -- debunked even at the time -- that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
Fox News host Brit Hume continued to tout the Associated Press' misleading March 3 "clarification" of a previous article about a pre-Katrina presidential briefing as justification for President Bush's claim -- debunked even at the time -- that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." The president made that claim to co-host Diane Sawyer on the September 1, 2005, edition of ABC's Good Morning America, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Hume referenced the AP clarification for a second consecutive day on March 6, citing it on Fox News' Special Report to declare that "experts merely warned the president that the levees could be overtopped," not breached. But Hume did not report that Bush had been warned by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the morning of August 29, 2005, that Katrina could cause levee breaching as well as overtopping, and omitted other facts undermining Bush's claim that he did not think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.
Hume referred to the March 1 Associated Press report and subsequent March 3 clarification that highlighted videotaped discussions involving Bush and other officials -- including Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center -- on hurricane preparations. The original report noted, contrary to Bush's claim that the levee breaches were completely unanticipated, that "the transcripts and video show there was plenty of talk about that possibility -- and Bush was worried too."
AP's clarification, as Media Matters for America has documented, echoed the latest version of the Bush administration's explanation of why the AP video did not contradict Bush's claim about not anticipating a breach of the levees. It noted, "The story should have made clear that Bush was warned about floodwaters overrunning the levees, rather than the levees breaking." However, the AP clarification made no reference to other evidence indicating that, Bush's claim two days later to the contrary notwithstanding, numerous members of his administration were well aware of the threat of a breach.
According to a January 26 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, in the early morning of August 29, 2005, just before Katrina made landfall, the Department of Homeland Security warned the White House that, based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) July 2004 "Hurricane Pam" planning exercise, Katrina could cause levee breaching as well as overtopping. The exercise modeled the impact of a direct hit on New Orleans by a Category 3 hurricane -- one with weaker winds than Katrina. In the exercise, authorities anticipated that such a storm would cause a surge that would overtop the levees, drowning New Orleans in 20 feet of water.
As reported in a March 2 New York Times article, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown stated at an August 29, 2005, midday videoconference that "he had spoken with President Bush twice in the morning and that the president was asking about reports that the levees had been breached." Additionally, in the videotaped discussion, while Mayfield did not specifically warn that the levees might be breached, he is shown clearly warning attendees of the catastrophic damage that ultimately resulted: "I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that is obviously a very, very grave concern." He further cautioned, "I'm sure [Katrina] will be the top 10 or 15 when all is said and done."
The debate over whether Bush was ever warned of actual "breaches" in the levee system or whether he was only warned of "overtopping" represents something of a change in the Bush administration's explanation for Bush's statement, made on the September 1 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
As Media Matters has documented, the administration initially explained Bush's September 1 statement on September 4, when Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff appeared on NBC's Meet the Press. After host Tim Russert asked Chertoff how the president could "be so wrong, be so misinformed," Chertoff suggested that Bush had been referring to newspaper reports the morning after the storm that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" because the eye of the storm had passed to the east of the city. But in fact, as Media Matters has repeatedly noted (here, here, and here), more than 12 hours before the appearance of those headlines in print, a post on the weblog of the Times-Picayune -- dated August 29, 2 p.m. CT -- reported, "City Hall confirmed a breach of the levee along the 17th Street Canal at Bellaire Drive, allowing water to spill into Lakeview." This initial report on the Times-Picayune weblog was followed throughout the afternoon and evening of August 29 by reports of other levee breaks and massive flooding.
Further, the AP overstated the distinction between "topping" and "breeching" of levees; preliminary engineering findings from the National Science Foundation, Louisiana State University, and the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that erosion from overtopping in fact caused many of the levee breaches.
From the March 6 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
HUME: And now the most fascinating two minutes in television, the latest from the political "Grapevine." The AP continues today to insist that footage it put out from a White House briefing on Hurricane Katrina was confidential video, despite the fact that the relevant events depicted on the tape were open to the press and transcripts of the event were released to reporters and members of Congress.
But the AP is backing off its original report, which suggested that the tape caught President Bush in a lie. Seizing on that story, Democrats claimed the tape directly contradicted the president's claim that, quote, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees in New Orleans."
But in what it called a clarification Friday, the AP notes that experts merely warned the president that the levees could be overtopped, not that they might be breached.