Reaction to Rejection of Foreign Aid

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Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, joins others in wanting answers about what happened with cash offered for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.


And we tried to get a response from the administration about this story. FEMA, the State Department and the Department for Homeland Security all declined to make a guest available to us today. But yesterday on ABC's "This Week," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had this to say.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): The fact is that we received a lot of very generous offers from people at the time of Katrina. It was a new circumstance. The United States is, frankly, not accustomed to receiving large-scale foreign assistance offers. But we used a lot of the aid. Some of it couldn't be used. Some of it was in kind in ways the United States could not use it.

MARTIN: We're joined now by Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. She is the chairman of the Senate Disaster Recovery Subcommittee.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): Well, thank you for having me, because this is such an important subject.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Let's go back to the fall of 2005. Did you know these foreign aid offers were coming in? And did you know before the Washington Post story that the U.S. government had failed to claim a significant amount of this aid?

Sen. LANDRIEU: I knew that there were some pledges that had come in, and I had been trying to keep up with some of them, but I had no idea it was that large of an amount or that much had gone unclaimed. And it really is - it's just a tragedy, because there's so much need. And to think that this money has gone unclaimed simply because, I guess, the administration didn't think they had time to organize it or coordinate it, it's just a crime because we had so many needs. And to see this $400 million-plus money being just not called upon is just heartbreaking and very frustrating.

MARTIN: You issued a statement in response to the Post story, saying yet another example of seemingly endless incompetence that has been the trademark of this administration's response to the hurricane. But who exactly should be held accountable for this? Whose job is this to see that these aid pledges were acted upon?

Sen. LANDRIEU: Well, actually, as you know, I've said that there was a failure at every level of government, but it's our national government that deals with other national governments. I mean, mayors and governors don't typically deal with heads of states; states and nations deal with, you know, the State Department and the administration directly. I think there should have been a much better coordinated effort at the federal level to help the governor and the local officials understand what this aid was and how much and what it could be applied for.

MARTIN: Some of these foreign governments figured out to bypass government entities and to give the money directly to universities or to the Red Cross or to a fund set up by former Presidents Clinton and Former President Bush. Did they ever apprise you or any member of the delegation of these efforts or of the problems that they were having in getting their aid to the people who they wanted to receive it?

Sen. LANDRIEU: I had been contacted by a few, you know, governments, and I think I have even written several letters to different organizations. And I know I've written several thank-you letters and made some calls. But again I didn't think that it was, you know, my office's responsibility. Our delegation doesn't think it's necessarily our responsibility to funnel or channel this aid. We don't have the resources that would be appropriate.

MARTIN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about this on the Sunday morning talk shows. And in essence, she said that it's unusual for the United States to be in the position to receive aid. We're generally in the aid-giving business. We were all scrambling to address this disaster. We did the best we could. Isn't that essentially what you're saying, that everybody was doing the best they could?

Sen. LANDRIEU: Our federal government was caught flatfooted. They had really scaled back FEMA to a point where it was anemic and not able to respond, and so much public and private money was wasted. But one of my jobs is to fix that as the new subcommittee chair of Homeland Security. We've just started hearings about three weeks ago. It's a new committee assignment. We will have a hearing on this. I'm going to ask our Foreign Operations Committee to conduct some hearings and come up with some suggestions. So if this happens again, we have a much better vehicle to receive this aid and distribute it.

Meanwhile, I can I say to these governments if you still want to give, we have some private, non-profit organizations that are established that are doing some terrific work. And we can direct them in that way.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you can comfortably make that request, knowing now that some of this aid was never even accepted, and that which was accepted was often wasted? Do you feel you can go back to the well, as it were?

Sen. LANDRIEU: Well, I do believe that some of these governments still have good intentions to help, and maybe they have parked their money waiting for an opportunity. And again, when you have a disaster of this magnitude, it is impossible to receive and use all of the money within even the first few weeks or months, because people have to be in a position to be ready to receive it.

There was a lot of shock. I can't explain how the city is going through the emotions - and communities - of literally having to take a few months to realize that the whole city is virtually destroyed - big pieces of it - that communities trying to make a decision about how to rebuild, et cetera.

So the good news is there's still time to get organized. They're still time to fix this. It's not a lost cause. But it is, again, a real disappointment to the people of the Gulf Coast, to think that hundreds of millions of dollars of aid was there and the federal government didn't even establish a procedure for identifying it and using it effectively.

MARTIN: Senator Mary Landrieu is a Democrat from Louisiana. She is also chairman of the Senate Disaster Recovery Subcommittee. She joined us in our Washington studio.

Thank you so much again, senator.

Sen. LANDRIEU: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Melanie Sloan is still with us. Melanie Sloan, do you think that members of Congress did their job in providing oversight of the money that was promised to the U.S. for the aid of the disaster victims?

Ms. SLOAN: No, absolutely not. It's perfectly clear that this money was never tracked in any way, and the prior Congress showed no ability to conduct any oversight hearings of anything, much less Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, the new Congress is showing a great deal more interest in oversight.

MARTIN: How could they have done, though? As you heard Senator Landrieu said, that they have a lot of responsibilities taking care of constituents. What vehicle would they have used to figure out where this money was going and where it should be going?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, they do have the whole committee system, and committees could sit and ask state department officials to come in and explain what offers they got and what they did with them.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you so much. Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. And she joined us here in studio 4B.

Ms. SLOAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for coming in.

Coming up next, one woman's decision on how to deal with breast cancer.

Ms. RENE SYLER (Former co-anchor, The Early Show): And the futility of it all just hit me then. And just - what was I was doing? What was I waiting for? And that's when I said to my husband, well, what do you think about this? And he said, well, it seems like a no-brainer to me. And I'm, like, well, yeah, because they're not your breasts that are being cut off.

MARTIN: Former CBS anchor Rene Syler joins us in a moment.

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