Millions Worth of Katrina Aid Forfeited by U.S.

New details indicate that the U.S. government failed to collect most of the foreign aid offered for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Melanie Sloan of The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington explains the controversy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin led a march through the city's Ninth Ward over the weekend. It was an effort to call attention to the area's continued problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The march comes amid new details about how the U.S. government handled offers of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from foreign governments who've wanted to help.

A group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested information from the State Department about these offers of aid, and they have posted many of these documents on their Web site. Melanie Sloan is the executive director of the group. She joins us now.

Welcome, Melanie. Thank for joining us.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): My pleasure.

MARTIN: What were the documents you got from the State Department, and what were made you ask for them to begin with?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, we asked for the documents because right after Hurricane Katrina I read in the newspapers about all the offers of aid that were pouring in, and I wondered what happened to them. We submit many Freedom of Information Act requests to the government every year, and so back in September of 2005 we asked for these documents, and they've been pouring in at a very slow rate - I should say trickling in, really - over the past year and a half.

MARTIN: What exactly did you ask for, and what have you been receiving?

Ms. SLOAN: We asked for all the information, all records of offers of aid by foreign governments and what happened to those offers, what we did with them, how we responded.

MARTIN: The Washington Post did their own reporting on this over the weekend, and they say that over $850 million in cash and oil was offered. Most of that was never collected, and only about $40 million of that has been used for the victims. Based on your read of the documents, why might that have happened?

Ms. SLOAN: You know, there's a combination of reasons. I think the biggest reason is that there was no mechanism in place for the U.S. government to effectively accept aid and then distribute it. It's not a position that our government has ever been in before, accepting foreign aid; we usually give foreign aid, and so there was no way to get it and get it to the people who needed it.

Now, on the other hand, that was also matched with a lot of arrogance and incompetence and malfeasance.

MARTIN: Well, give an example.

Ms. SLOAN: I think one of the best examples is there was a shipment of medical goods by the Italians, and that was allowed to be destroyed. And then they actually - there was an e-mail exchange between a couple of people over at the State Department about what they should do about those medical supplies, including just lying about what happened to them.

MARTIN: But they didn't actually lie, did they?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, it's not really clear what, in the end, happened.

MARTIN: But isn't that a normal human reaction, though, to a big mess-up?

Ms. SLOAN: You know, it may be a normal human reaction, but I think that's -you've got to deal with those impulses and do the right thing. I mean there was so many offers of aid that were rejected. For example, any offers of aid for medical assistance was rejected over liability issues. Well, I think that the people in New Orleans and Mississippi who really needed medical care would have accepted the help of a French doctor at the time.

MARTIN: But as you pointed out, the U.S. is generally in the aid-giving business, not the aid-getting business. Is it possible that these officials who were in charge of this, like so many other people, were just overwhelmed by a responsibility that they had never had before?

Ms. SLOAN: Sure, I think that's absolutely part of the problem. And there seemed to be so many problems at FEMA, as we've learned over the past couple of years, and the State Department often seemed frustrated with their interactions with FEMA on how the aid was actually being distributed.

MARTIN: Is there another e-mail that you want to give us?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, I think the other thing that's really interesting is a memo that Karen Hughes sent out. She worked at the State Department, and she was telling everybody to - she was telling all the ambassadors to thank foreign governments and their citizens for their assistance. So all the time she was issuing these platitudes knowing at the same time they weren't actually accepting this aid and distributing it.

MARTIN: Wait - is that really fair, though? Because we talked to Karen Hughes's office yesterday and her spokeswoman pointed out that she sent that e-mail just days after the hurricane had subsided. So was it really reasonable for her to expect at that point that she would have had reason to know that there were problems at that time?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, the date on this e-mail is not just - is not days after the hurricane. It's dated January 27, 2006.

MARTIN: Isn't that a mistake, though? I mean that e-mail was dated on the date of the FOIA as opposed to the date that it was actually sent.

Ms. SLOAN: No, it's not dated the date of the FOIA. It's the date of the memo itself.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, then, I think we have a dispute about the facts on this. So in our last minute that we have left, what is to be done about this? Is there anything at this point that can be done to recover the money that was offered that was not accepted or spent, that couldn't be used to benefit the citizens of the Gulf?

Ms. SLOAN: I think that the (unintelligible) is the real questions Congress has to get at. They need to find out actually where all this money's sitting and where it went. One of the things that our FOIA didn't get to, because it can't, is where the money actually went. All we can track is that offers of aid came in, but we don't even know if the money came into the general treasury of the United States or ever where it was distributed, so I think Congress needs to ask the State Department these tough question about where the money went.

MARTIN: Okay. Melanie Sloan is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She joined us here in Studio 4B. Melanie Sloan, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SLOAN: Thanks for having me.

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