At a September 6 Defense Department briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers both declared as “flat wrong” allegations that the deployment in Iraq had somehow hindered the U.S. military's ability to support relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. But despite the fact that recent statements by Army and National Guard officials appear to contradict Rumsfeld and Myers's assertion, numerous news outlets repeated their claim without challenge.
On the September 6 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre stated that Rumsfeld and Myers “insisted that the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq has had no effect on their ability to respond” to Hurricane Katrina. A September 7 Washington Post article reported that Rumsfeld “sharply rejected the suggestion that the commitment of large numbers of troops to Iraq ... had delayed the military's response.” The Post article also quoted Myers saying, “Not only was there no delay, I think we anticipated in most cases -- not in all cases, but in most cases -- the support that was required.” Articles appearing that same day in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times highlighted Myers's statement as well.
But all of these news outlets entirely ignored recent comments from military officials that call into question the Defense Department's broad denials. A September 6 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) highlighted the federal government's “delayed understanding of the scope of the damage last week and its initial slowness in mounting rescues and bringing food and water to stricken citizens.” The article listed six problems that had hampered federal relief efforts, including a “military stretched by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which left commanders near New Orleans reluctant to commit some active-duty units at nearby Fort Polk, La., because they were in the midst of preparing for an Afghan deployment this winter.”
The Journal went on to report that a “senior Army official” had conceded that Fort Polk, a five-hour drive from New Orleans, had declined to commit thousands of active-duty soldiers to the beleaguered region because their unit was “preparing for Afghanistan deployment in January.” Instead, Fort Polk deployed a mere “few dozen soldiers” on September 4 -- five days after the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast:
The U.S. Army has a large facility, Fort Polk, in Leesville, La., about 270 miles northwest of New Orleans. Officials at Fort Polk, which has nearly 8,000 active-duty soldiers, said their contribution so far has consisted of a few dozen soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division manning purification equipment and driving half-ton trucks filled with supplies and equipment. The first contingent of soldiers didn't receive orders until Saturday afternoon.
A spokeswoman at Fort Polk said she did not know why the base received its deployment orders so late in the game. “You'd have to ask the Pentagon,” she said. A senior Army official said the service was reluctant to commit the 4th brigade of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Polk, because the unit, which numbers several thousand soldiers, is in the midst of preparing for an Afghanistan deployment in January.
As a result, the Department of Defense committed thousands of soldiers from Fort Hood in Texas -- as well as from other bases around the country -- to the relief effort. In contrast with Myers's claim that there was “no delay” in directing support to the disaster zone, it took these troops “several days” to arrive in Louisiana, according to the Journal:
Instead, the Pentagon chose to send upwards of 7,500 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas and the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., along with Marines from California and North Carolina. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division are able to deploy anywhere in the world in 18 hours. It took several days for them to arrive on the ground in Louisiana.
The Journal article also noted the concerns voiced by Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard a month before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. In an August 1 interview with a New Orleans TV station, Schneider had worried that the National Guard equipment transferred to Iraq -- including high-water vehicles -- would be needed at home if a natural disaster struck:
When members of the Louisiana National Guard left for Iraq in October, they took a lot [of] equipment with them. Dozens of high water vehicles, humvees, refuelers and generators are now abroad, and in the event of a major natural disaster that, could be a problem.
“The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission,” said Lt. Colonel Pete Schneider with the LA National Guard.
Col. Schneider says the state has enough equipment to get by, and if Louisiana were to get hit by a major hurricane, the neighboring states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have all agreed to help.
According to a September 4 Washington Post article, the three neighboring states cited by Schneider were also hit by Katrina and therefore were too “overwhelmed” to provide such resources to Louisiana:
State officials had planned to turn to neighboring states for help with troops, transportation and equipment in a major hurricane. But in Katrina's case, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were also overwhelmed, said Denise Bottcher, a Blanco spokesman.
From the September 6 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:
McINTYRE: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers also insisted that the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq has had no effect on their ability to respond here. And, in fact, General Myers said the converse is also true, that the deployment of these troops in the disaster zone is not affecting scheduled deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. They said that the suggestions to the contrary were, quote, “flat wrong” -- Lou.
DOBBS: Absolutely flat wrong, but also at the same time, the Department of Defense, Jamie, has not been the focus of criticism, rather the Homeland Security Department and FEMA. While that's not in his purview, did the defense secretary respond to those charges?
From the September 7 Washington Post article headlined "Bush to Probe Storm Response":
He [Rumsfeld] noted that more than 300,000 Army National Guard and Air National Guard troops remain available to help. He sharply rejected the suggestion that the commitment of large numbers of troops to Iraq -- including National Guard soldiers from Louisiana and Mississippi -- had delayed the military's response. About 41,000 Guard troops are in assisting the region.
“Not only was there no delay,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I think we anticipated in most cases -- not in all cases, but in most cases -- the support that was required.”
From the September 7 New York Times article headlined "Bush Promises to Seek Answers to Failures of Hurricane Relief":
At the Pentagon, senior officials pointed to the arrival of forces in the Gulf Coast in recent days, with more than 41,000 National Guardsmen and about 17,000 active-duty personnel committed to the mission. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised what he described as a more than adequate military response.
''Not only was there no delay, I think we anticipated, in most cases -- not in all cases -- but in most cases, the support that was required,'' General Myers said at a news briefing. ''And we were pushing support before we were formally asked for it.''
From the September 7 Los Angeles Times article headlined "U.S. Disaster Response Probe Pledged":
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the military's response to Katrina.
“Not only was there no delay, I think we anticipated, in most cases -- not in all cases, but in most cases -- the support that was required,” Myers said.