White House considered invoking Insurrection Act in Louisiana
September 9, 2005
Political Issues Snarled Plans for Military Help After
By ERIC LIPTON, ERIC SCHMITT
and THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 - As New Orleans descended into
chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for
40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers
debated whether the president should speed the arrival
of active-duty troops by seizing control of the
hurricane relief mission from the governor.
For reasons of practicality and politics, officials at
the Justice Department and the Pentagon, and then at
the White House, decided not to urge Mr. Bush to take
command of the effort. Instead, the Washington
officials decided to rely on the growing number of
National Guard personnel flowing into Louisiana, who
were under Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's control.
The debate began after officials realized that
Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the
national disaster response plans created after the
Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's
senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to
recognize that local police, fire and medical
personnel might be incapacitated.
As criticism of the response to Hurricane Katrina has
mounted, one of the most pointed questions has been
why more troops were not available more quickly to
restore order and offer aid. Interviews with officials
in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation
grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of
federal/state authority, weighing the realities of
military logistics and perhaps talking past each other
in the crisis.
To seize control of the mission, Mr. Bush would have
had to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the
president in times of unrest to command active-duty
forces into the states to perform law enforcement
duties. But decision makers in Washington felt certain
that Ms. Blanco would have resisted surrendering
control, as Bush administration officials believe
would have been required to deploy active-duty combat
forces before law and order had been re-established.
While combat troops can conduct relief missions
without the legal authority of the Insurrection Act,
Pentagon and military officials say that no
active-duty forces could have been sent into the chaos
of New Orleans on Wednesday or Thursday without
confronting law-and-order challenges.
But just as important to the administration were
worries about the message that would have been sent by
a president ousting a Southern governor of another
party from command of her National Guard, according to
administration, Pentagon and Justice Department
"Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a
president of the United States of one party had
pre-emptively taken from the female governor of
another party the command and control of her forces,
unless the security situation made it completely clear
that she was unable to effectively execute her command
authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable
result?" asked one senior administration official, who
spoke anonymously because the talks were confidential.
Officials in Louisiana agree that the governor would
not have given up control over National Guard troops
in her state as would have been required to send large
numbers of active-duty soldiers into the area. But
they also say they were desperate and would have
welcomed assistance by active-duty soldiers.
"I need everything you have got," Ms. Blanco said she
told Mr. Bush last Monday, after the storm hit.
In an interview, she acknowledged that she did not
specify what sorts of soldiers. "Nobody told me that I
had to request that," Ms. Blanco said. "I thought that
I had requested everything they had. We were living in
a war zone by then."
By Wednesday, she had asked for 40,000 soldiers.
In the discussions in Washington, also at issue was
whether active-duty troops could respond faster and in
larger numbers than the Guard.
By last Wednesday, Pentagon officials said even the
82nd Airborne, which has a brigade on standby to move
out within 18 hours, could not arrive any faster than
7,000 National Guard troops, which are specially
trained and equipped for civilian law enforcement
In the end, the flow of thousands of National Guard
soldiers, especially military police, was accelerated
from other states.
"I was there. I saw what needed to be done," Lt. Gen.
H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau,
said in an interview. "They were the fastest,
best-capable, most appropriate force to get there in
the time allowed. And that's what it's all about."
But one senior Army officer expressed puzzlement that
active-duty troops were not summoned sooner, saying
82nd Airborne troops were ready to move out from Fort
Bragg, N.C., on Sunday, the day before the hurricane
The call never came, administration officials said, in
part because military officials believed Guard troops
would get to the stricken region faster and because
administration civilians worried that there could be
political fallout if federal troops were forced to
Louisiana officials were furious that there was not
more of a show of force, in terms of relief supplies
and troops, from the federal government in the middle
of last week. As the water was rising in New Orleans,
the governor repeatedly questioned whether Washington
had started its promised surge of federal resources.
"We needed equipment," Ms. Blanco said in an
interview. "Helicopters. We got isolated."
Aides to Ms. Blanco said she was prepared to accept
the deployment of active-duty military officials in
her state. But she and other state officials balked at
giving up control of the Guard as Justice Department
officials said would have been required by the
Insurrection Act if those combat troops were to be
sent in before order was restored.
In a separate discussion last weekend, the governor
also rejected a more modest proposal for a hybrid
command structure in which both the Guard and
active-duty troops would be under the command of an
active-duty, three-star general - but only after he
had been sworn into the Louisiana National Guard.
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for
the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the
Pentagon in August streamlined a rigid, decades-old
system of deployment orders to allow the military's
Northern Command to dispatch liaisons to work with
local officials before an approaching hurricane.
The Pentagon is reviewing events from the time
Hurricane Katrina reached full strength and bore down
on New Orleans and five days later when Mr. Bush
ordered 7,200 active-duty soldiers and marines to the
After the hurricane passed New Orleans and the levees
broke, flooding the city, it became increasingly
evident that disaster-response efforts were badly
Justice Department lawyers, who were receiving
harrowing reports from the area, considered whether
active-duty military units could be brought into
relief operations even if state authorities gave their
consent - or even if they refused.
The issue of federalizing the response was one of
several legal issues considered in a flurry of
meetings at the Justice Department, the White House
and other agencies, administration officials said.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Justice
Department lawyers to interpret the federal law
creatively to help local authorities, those officials
said. For example, federal prosecutors prepared to
expand their enforcement of some criminal statutes
like anti-carjacking laws that can be prosecuted by
either state or federal authorities.
On the issue of whether the military could be deployed
without the invitation of state officials, the Office
of Legal Counsel, the unit within the Justice
Department that provides legal advice to federal
agencies, concluded that the federal government had
authority to move in even over the objection of local
This act was last invoked in 1992 for the Los Angeles
riots, but at the request of Gov. Pete Wilson of
California, and has not been invoked over a governor's
objections since the civil rights era - and before
that, to the time of the Civil War, administration
officials said. Bush administration, Pentagon and
senior military officials warned that such an extreme
measure would have serious legal and political
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said
deployment of National Guard soldiers to Iraq,
including a brigade from Louisiana, did not affect the
relief mission, but Ms. Blanco disagreed.
"Over the last year, we have had about 5,000 out, at
one time," she said. "They are on active duty, serving
in Iraq and Afghanistan. That certainly is a factor."
By Friday, National Guard reinforcements had arrived,
and a truck convoy of 1,000 Guard soldiers brought
relief supplies - and order - to the convention center
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say
the experience with Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated
flaws in the nation's plans to handle disaster.
"This event has exposed, perhaps ultimately to our
benefit, a deficiency in terms of replacing first
responders who tragically may be the first
casualties," Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of
defense for domestic security, said.
Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security,
has suggested that active-duty troops be trained and
equipped to intervene if front-line emergency
personnel are stricken. But the Pentagon's leadership
remains unconvinced that this plan is sound,
suggesting instead that the national emergency
response plans be revised to draw reinforcements
initially from civilian police, firefighters, medical
personnel and hazardous-waste experts in other states
not affected by a disaster.
The federal government rewrote its national emergency
response plan after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it
relied on local officials to manage any crisis in its
opening days. But Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed local
"first responders," including civilian police and the
At a news conference on Saturday, Mr. Chertoff said,
"The unusual set of challenges of conducting a massive
evacuation in the context of a still dangerous flood
requires us to basically break the traditional model
and create a new model, one for what you might call
kind of an ultra-catastrophe.""
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reported from Washington
for this article, and Eric Lipton from Baton Rouge,
La. David Johnston contributed reporting.