Lawmakers threaten subpoenas for Katrina-related documents

New e-mails shed light on ex-FEMA director Michael Brown’s actions after the hurricane hit--including a plea from his press secretary that he roll up his sleeves for the TV cameras.

House lawmakers investigating the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina threatened Wednesday to subpoena the White House and key federal agencies for documents, saying a lack of information is hindering their already time-constrained investigation.

Lawmakers on a special House committee examining the events leading up to and following the hurricane said they have yet to receive key documents and e-mails from the administration. Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va, said the committee will use "whatever means possible" to get the documents.

"If we don't get them, I'm not hesitant to issue subpoenas," Davis said. "There are simply too many gaps in the picture we have at this point that we can't draw complete conclusions."

"We're not going to be stonewalled here," Davis added.

The commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks lodged similar complaints that the administration was not forthcoming with documents. That commission ultimately had to issue three subpoenas - one to the Federal Aviation Administration, another to the North American Aerospace Defense Command and a third to the city of New York.

The House committee is scheduled to complete its work and issue a report on its findings and recommendations by mid-February.

The committee has yet to receive requested e-mail exchanges and communications involving White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Army Corps of Engineers Commander Lt. Gen. Carl Strock and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, said Rep. Charles Melancon, D-La.

"The continued failure of administration officials to comply with these requests will impede congressional oversight of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina," Melancon said. "The credibility and thoroughness of the congressional investigation into the response . . . will hinge on access to key documents and communications."

Melancon technically does not serve on the committee because Democrats have refused to appoint members, saying that an independent commission is needed. Melancon and a few other Democrats, however, have been voluntary participants.

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., noted that the committee also has yet to receive requested communications from the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The committee originally requested all documents by Oct. 14, but Davis extended that deadline to Oct. 27. Davis said he expects to receive "a substantial production" of documents from the White House on Thursday.

Melancon said DHS has provided more than 1,000 pages of requested e-mails to the committee, mainly involving the actions taken by Michael Brown, who was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the storm hit. Chertoff described Brown as his "battlefield commander" on the ground in the days immediately after the storm hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said he was "surprised" to hear that lawmakers have concerns about the department's cooperation. He said DHS has faced a "a broad-ranging and massive amount of [congressional] requests" for information -- not only from the House special committee but also from the Senate. He said the department has already provided up to 10,000 pages of documents to lawmakers and is working daily to fulfill their requests and prioritize what they need.

"Without question, we are doing everything we can to work with the committees and be as responsive as we can," Knocke said.

Brown testified before the committee last month. Although Brown said he had e-mail exchanges with Chertoff and Card, Melancon said DHS has yet to produce those communications.

Melancon also said some e-mails provided by DHS and released Wednesday by the committee indicate that Brown was not an effective leader.

For example, on Aug. 31 Brown received an e-mail from Marty Bahamonde, one of the only FEMA officials on the ground in New Orleans, saying "the situation is past critical." Bahamonde said hotels were kicking people out, thousands were gathering in the streets with no food or water, and medical patients were going to die within hours.

"We are out of food and running out of water at the [Louisiana Superdome], plans in works to address the critical needs," Bahamonde wrote.

Brown replied four minutes later: "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

On Sept. 2, Brown received an e-mail saying that 42-foot trailers full of beds, wheelchairs and oxygen concentrators were waiting to be deployed but needed direction. Brown waited four days before finally forwarding the message to other FEMA officials, saying only: "Can we use these people?"

On Aug. 30 - the day after the storm hit and New Orleans was submerged in flood waters - Brown sent an e-mail to his assistant asking if he knew anyone who could watch his dogs.

In other e-mail exchanges, Brown expressed concern that his reputation was being tarnished. The e-mails show he spent time trying to find people to vouch for him.

And on Sept. 4, Brown's press secretary, Sharon Worthy, wrote him an e-mail about his physical appearance. "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt ... all shirts," Worthy said. "Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this crises and on TV you just need to look more hard-working ... ROLL UP THE SLEEVES!"

Melancon said the e-mails show the need for documentation from the administration.

"These e-mails paint of portrait of Mr. Brown that differs significantly from Mr. Brown's testimony before Congress about his actions," Melancon said. "In the midst of the crisis, Mr. Brown found the time to exchange e-mails about his appearance, his reputation and other nonessential matters."