The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Ethics Watchdog Seeks Info on Foreign Aid Offers

by Brendan Coyne

Dec. 15, 2005 – A government-ethics watchdog has been waiting for answers to questions about the federal government’s decision to decline disaster relief aid from several countries during this year’s particularly destructive hurricane season. First raised in a public-information request in September by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the information sought concerns why aid was turned down, who was behind the decisions and exactly what kind of help was offered remain unanswered more than three months later.

The government’s silence prompted CREW to file a lawsuit, the group announced earlier this week.

In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, nations across the globe pledged relief assistance. From tiny, impoverished African and Southeast Asian states and oil-rich Middle Eastern countries to European allies, about half of the world offered the US some sort of aid, much of which was ultimately turned down.

With waters rising in New Orleans, Fidel Castro’s Cuba offered specially trained mobile medical teams ready to seek out needy residents on foot. And, amid spiking gas prices and news of damaged oil-refining capacity, much-reviled Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez came forth with a pledge to provide low-cost fuel to soften the economic impact of the storms.

Other nations much less well-off than the US came forward to lend a helping hand. The Bush administration reportedly ignored or rejected many of them outright. CREW says it would like to know why.

Just a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, as offers piled up and it appeared the US was unprepared to deal with them, CREW filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking information and communications related to the aid offers and recovery efforts. According to papers filed by CREW in US District Court Tuesday, all three bodies have largely ignored the requests for information.

"The American public is entitled to know which countries generously offered their assistance in the aftermath of Katrina and how the US government responded to those offers," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. "The State Department’s refusal to provide this information suggests that our government is still attempting to hide its ineffectual response to Katrina."

Instead of releasing the requested documents, as called for under the Freedom of Information Act, the State Department responded almost a month later with demands for a better description of the information sought, CREW said. In a letter dated October 6, the State Department asked the group to narrow its request for Katrina response documents to include a "full list of incidents, meetings, events, persons" as well as the specific nations and organizations involved.

In addition, the State Department denied both the organization’s request for expedited processing and its application for a fee waiver. CREW was given 45 days to respond to the letter.

CREW maintains that by requesting more information, denying expedition and insisting the applicant cover costs, the State Department is engaging in little more than obfuscation and trying to brush its serious errors under the rug.

"The only way to ensure greater preparedness for any future disaster is for there to be a full airing of the failures of the past," Sloan reiterated in announcing the lawsuit. "It is scandalous that our government is still trying to cover up its breathtakingly inadequate response to the greatest natural disaster in our nation’s history."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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