The Bush Administration's attempt to reframe its New Orleans legacy on the eve of both parties' national conventions has sent an unlikely point man into the trenches - one who wrote the book on information warfare. Retired General Douglas O'Dell wrote in National Defense on April Fool's Day, 2002:
"Information warfare is a subtle art, almost clandestine, and like many other weapons, is used as a tool of war."
He fired the first round just before the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. O'Dell was featured on the front page of New Orleans' daily newspaper declaring, in essence, that the Administration blames the city for its recovery level. After three months on the job, O'Dell speculated to the Times Picayune that the city's recovery director Edward Blakely thinks that a new presidential administration "will reload the cannon and start shooting money down here."
In an oddly personal attack for a federal representative, O'Dell also said he wants Blakely, ". . . who's probably getting paid a whole hell of a lot more money than I am, to do his damn job." The two have never met to discuss recovery. These comments spanned a series of interviews and include O'Dell suggesting bundling storm damaged properties for sale with fewer environmental studies while informing city planners that the Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general is his "good friend."
O'Dell also expressed the "universal federal view" of frustration, and name-dropped his boss, Michael Chertoff, to an education official. "I'm sure he would take your call," he is quoted as saying. This would be a good week for Chertoff to take a call from New Orleans officials as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf Coast. The storm is expected to arrive as a Category 3, and the State has requested a Federal State of Emergency which has not happened yet.
In his National Defense article on information warfare, O'Dell concluded:
"When a commander gets in front of the press, he should be prepared not to outright lie, but to provide information. And sometimes, providing more information than is necessary, is as useful as keeping secrets, with great conviction."
In the face of Hurricane Gustav, the information warfare is escalating. Glenn Beck said last night, "Why are we spending all this money in New Orleans? We shouldn't spend a single dime of taxpayers' money in a place where - I don't care where it is - where it is in a flood zone. Move out of the place that, you know, you're below sea level."
Apparently Beck's anal surgery has not made him less of an ass. For advocates of shutting New Orleans down for good, would that also mean closing every farm along the Mississippi where the levees failed this spring? Closing every bridge in Minneapolis for infrastructure repairs as Republicans stream in for their convention?
The Republican convention falls just after John McCain's birthday, which he and Bush spent munching cake on a tarmac three years ago while Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and the New Orleans levees broke. It's possible that McCain will select Louisiana's new governor as a mea culpa vice presidential selection, but probably not.
By Monday, Gustav will make landfall somewhere between Texas and Florida with New Orleans in the center of its risk area. Evacuations are beginning, and the level of fear here is palpable. Many of our city's cultural icons attending the Democratic National Convention will now be in Denver for longer than they anticipated as their flights are canceled.
The best defense against intellectual warfare, which I have not seen rise to this level for any other American disaster, is the truth. As Bill Clinton just said at the Convention while endorsing Barack Obama, "American can do better than that." Here are two examples from New Orleans:
A note on our windshield this morning read:
In an abundance of caution, I am compiling a list of all of us in case of emergency which, when you return it to me, I will copy each of you to have. God bless us all that we do not have to repeat the exercise we went through with Katrina.
What is a non cell phone number where you can be reached in case all cell phones die again?"
By this afternoon, I heard from a friend who is donating her car to an evacuating family. Their car was totaled, and they have no other way to get out of town. The car title will be transferred by tomorrow morning. When it comes down to it, the difference between New Orleans sinking or rising is this country's choice between love and hate.
And that choice will make all the difference in the world.