Bush lied over Katrina, sacked head of disaster agency says

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Michael Brown, head of the federal disaster agency at the time of Hurricane Katrina, has reopened a painful wound for President George Bush, charging that the White House knew New Orleans' protective levees had broken far earlier than it had acknowledged.

Testifying to a Senate committee yesterday, Mr Brown said that by the evening of Monday 29 August, his Fema agency had reported to superiors that catastrophic floodwaters were pouring into the city, that fires were breaking out and large numbers of people were stranded.

Conditions, a Fema message said that evening, were "far more serious" than media reports suggested. Nonetheless the following morning, Mr Bush told the country from his ranch in Texas that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet".

Mr Brown quickly became the designated scapegoat for the Katrina debacle. A fortnight after the hurricane struck, he was forced to step down as Fema's director amid public ridicule, with Mr Bush's famous utterance of "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" ringing in his ears.

In his testimony, Mr Brown placed the bulk of the blame for the administration's botched response on a "dysfunctional" Department of Homeland Security. Its obsession with terrorism, he said, had reduced natural disaster relief to the status of "stepchild" of the DHS, set up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Mr Brown's appearance before the Senate's Homeland Security Committee came on a day when the administration's credibility came under fire on a host of fronts - from its rationale for going to war against Iraq, to its disclosure of a foiled terrorist attack on Los Angeles and Mr Bush's links with the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

On Thursday Mr Bush revealeddetails of al-Qa'ida's alleged plot to fly a plane into an LA skyscraper in 2002. But the city's mayor was furious he had not been told personally of what the President was going to say, while Democrats accused Mr Bush of resurrecting an affair he first mentioned in late 2005 to deflect attention from the row over eavesdropping by the National Security Agency.

Even as it was defending itself on that front, the White House came under unprecedented attack from a top former CIA official for its misuse of intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The accusations by Paul Pillar, the intelligence agency's top Middle East specialist until he resigned in 2005, are not in themselves new. Never before however has so senior a CIA official so bluntly charged that the Bush White House had made up its mind to attack Iraq long beforehand, and was only interested in intelligence that supported that decision.

"Official intelligence was not relied upon in making even the most significant national security decisions," Mr Pillar writes in the new issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. "Intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made ... and the intelligence community's own work was politicised."

Further evidence that the administration had manipulated intelligence came in documents showing that Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, told prosecutors he had been "authorised by superiors" to leak classified intelligence to reporters in the early summer of 2003, as it became increasingly evident that contrary to White House claims, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Libby, who is facing perjury charges in the affair of the leak of the identity of the covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. But the "superiors" in question can only be Mr Cheney himself.

The revelations thus open the White House to charges of hypocrisy - that it was railing against the leak that the NSA, supposed to deal exclusively with foreign intelligence, had a secret domestic spying programme, but had blithely encouraged intelligence leaks that suited its purposes.

In a separate embarrassment, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff has claimed that he met Mr Bush "almost a dozen times", and had even been invited in 2003 to the President's ranch in Texas for a thank-you meeting for campaign contributors. If true, the claim would cast doubt on Mr Bush's insistence that he cannot remember meeting the lobbyist, who is at the centre of a spreading corruption and influence-peddling scandal.