WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday urged Congress to examine
whether the White House needs stronger powers to deal with catastrophes like
Bush’s backing for the congressional inquiry raised the possibility
that lawmakers might expand presidential authority to:
• Order mandatory civilian evacuations
• Dispatch U.S.-based armed forces for emergency search-and-rescue
• Grant wider leeway for active-duty U.S. military personnel
to carry out law enforcement operations.
“It’s really important that as we take a step back and learn lessons
— that we are in a position to adequately answer the question: ‘Are
we prepared for major catastrophes?”’ Bush said during a tour of
hurricane damage in New Orleans.
He said if there was a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, such
as germ-warfare agents, “we’ve got to make sure we understand the
lessons learned to be able to deal with catastrophe.”
Asked whether the federal government needed broader authority to “come
in earlier or even in advance of a storm that (is) threatening?” Bush
replied: “I think that’s one of the interesting issues that Congress
needs to take a look at.”
Bush’s comments came as outside experts urged a variety of changes they
said could improve the federal government’s ability to respond to natural
disasters or terrorist attacks.
Richard A. Falkenrath, a former homeland security adviser at the White House
during Bush’s first term, said officials “need to look very, very
closely” at expanding presidential authority to override “a delayed
and ineffective evacuation order at the state and local level” that he
said had occurred before the hurricane.
“It’s entirely possible we would need such authority in a biological
weapons attack and the destruction of a chlorine tanker and nuclear weapons
attack, where local and state capabilities would be instantaneously overwhelmed,
and so it would be good to get this one sorted out,” said Falkenrath,
now a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Michael O’Hanlon, a national security scholar at Brookings, said the
White House ought to create an emergency response team within the armed forces
that could be rushed to disasters “where every hour counts.”
O’Hanlon said it had taken too long to get Navy and Air Force helicopters
into the New Orleans area to assist early search-and-rescue operations by police
and the U.S. Coast Guard.