President Obama to National Security Staff: I Want to Know Why It Is We’re Not Doing More

By Lindsey Ellerson

Jan 13, 2010 5:58pm

Meeting with officials from his National Security Staff in the last hour, President Obama was direct. He’d just gotten off the phone with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to talk about rescue and relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake. A larger meeting in the Situation Room is scheduled for 7:15 pm EST. “I expect a full report at 7:15,” the president told his team, according to NSS chief of staff Denis McDonough. “I want to know why it is we’re doing what we are — and why it is we’re not doing more.” As soon as he heard Haiti had experienced an earthquake that registered 7.3 on the Richter scale, with a 5.9 after-shock, McDonough – the one who first told the president the news of the earthquake – knew it would be bad.  
President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten from the Oval Office, Jan. 13, 2010.   (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) The only country McDonough has spent more time in than Haiti is the U.S. ; from 1996 to 1999, as a staffer for the House International Relations Committee, where he focused on U.S. policy in Latin America, McDonough spent a great deal of time in Haiti. Knowing firsthand of that country’s squalor – its lack of infrastructure, the condition of its hospitals, its inability to deal with normal life much less a major catastrophe – McDonough said he immediately knew this would be a major crisis. At 5:52 PM EST yesterday, McDonough told the President about the earthquake. The President Obama told McDonough to make sure that embassy personnel were safe, and to begin preparations in the event that humanitarian assistance is needed.  The Department of State, USAID and the United States Southern Command began working to coordinate an assessment and any such assistance. Less than three hours later, at 8:30 PM, McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and other members of the National Security Staff met with the President to give him another update on the situation in Haiti. The President told them he expects an aggressive, coordinated effort by the U.S. government. That night in the Situation Room, at 10:00 PM, Donilon convened a meeting in the White House Situation Room with senior representatives from the Pentagon, the State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) the United States Mission to the United Nations, the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Homeland Security, and others to coordinate the government-wide response, per the President’s request. At 7:15 AM this morning, President Obama, in the residence, received two memos: one from the DHS National Operations Center (NOC) and one from National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones (Ret.), which describe further background, important decisions that have been made, and actions that have already been taken. At 9:04 AM, the President was briefed by McDonough, Donilon, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright.  At 10:15 AM, President Obama spoke by phone from the Oval Office with USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah. The President thanked Dr. Shah for his immediate efforts and underlined his expectation for an aggressive and highly coordinated relief effort. After delivering public remarks about the earthquake at 10:20 AM, President Obama contacted US Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and spoke with him around 12:40. “Are you and your family okay?” the president asked Merten, recalls a White House official present for the call. “Is your staff okay?” After Merten told him everyone with the US Embassy was present and accounted for, the president told him, “I told my team to be as aggressive and responsive as possible. I want to make sure you’re getting everything you need from Washington.” At 1:12 PM, President Obama spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was en route to Australia. Throughout the day he reached out to various world leaders. At 2:15 PM he spoke Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. At 2:23 PM, he spoke with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. At 2:36 PM, President Obama spoke with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The UN Mission Staff in Haiti has lost at least 14 employees, including chief of the UN mission in Haiti Hedi Annabi, with at least 56 injured. At 4:53 PM the President called Lula.  At 5:06 PM he called Bachelet. The President from the first moment was focused on getting rescue and relief teams to Haiti, McDonough says. “He believes it’s very clear we have the responsibility” to lead the efforts there, McDonough said, starting with helping Americans – the estimated 45,000 government personnel, volunteers, religious workers, and dual Haitian-American citizens in Haiti – but also the Haitians in need. -jpt

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