Katrina inquiry should
be conducted independently


President Bush has chosen his homeland security counselor to handle the probe of response to the hurricane.

PRESIDENT Bush's appointment of his homeland security adviser to lead an internal investigation of his administration's unskillful handling of Hurricane Katrina makes about as much sense as putting his chief political guru, Karl Rove, in charge of the massive reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

For an inquiry to produce a credible report about "what went right and what didn't go right," as the president said in acknowledging the federal government's failures, it must be conducted objectively.

An independent analysis is what the American public wants, according to several polls, and it is what the country deserves because swift, sound response from government is crucial not only in natural disasters, but also in terrorist strikes.

Bush has assigned the inquiry to Frances Townsend, a former prosecutor who has handled a number of pivotal duties for the president, including reorganization of intelligence agencies following the mistakes about weapons in Iraq.

Townsend's competency isn't in question, but as homeland security adviser, her own actions -- or inaction -- should be part of the probe. Her duties are to advise the president in coordinating government response in major disasters and emergencies.

Yet on the day that Michael Brown, the inept and unqualified then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was removed from his job, Townsend flew off for five days to Morocco and other points for intelligence consultations. She might have better served the president at home.

Townsend has strong professional credentials that place her outside the flock of partisan loyalists Bush has herded to certain federal agencies where the unqualified are unlikely to do much harm. However, the Brown episode unmasked the danger of rubber-stamping a president's nominees and why it is crucial that political appointees are capable as well as connected. Moreover, the free passes given the president have created an atmosphere in which accountability falls away.

The arrest of a top procurement officer involved until last week in Katrina relief efforts is a case in point. David Safavian, who shares close political allies with the administration, has been accused of lying to federal authorities about a corruption scandal. Questions have arisen about how he got his job and about the involvement of his wife, the legal counsel for a Republican-led House committee that also has begun a Katrina probe.

Meanwhile, Bush's nominee to head a troubled immigration and customs agency has drawn attention. Julie Myers has scant experience for running a 20,000-employee law enforcement unit with a $4 billion budget, but she is the niece of Gen. Richard Myers, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and she recently married the chief aide of Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff. Those personal relationships would have made her a shoo-in in pre-Katrina days, but not now.

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