Much of this debate now focuses on the distinction between "topped" and "breached." The White House was definitely warned that the levees could be overtopped by the hurricane; but is that the same thing?
Well, not quite. A breach is clearly more catastrophic. However, it does seem clear that the possibility of levee failure had been raised, and Bush's statement did suggest that it came as a shock. Furthermore, according to the Associated Press:
specific mention of possible breaches was raised at an Aug. 29 teleconference that included Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff.
The tapes and transcripts leave no doubt of the incompetence of state and local officials -- no question about that. But they also do, it seems to me, confirm the increasingly widespread view of the Bush White House as incompetent, lacking in public accountability, and either dishonest or ill-informed.
And, as always, the partisanship of this debate is rife with irony. Right now, we have a lot of people passionately arguing that the distinction between "breached" and "topped" is (a) vitally important, and it's dishonest and misleading to conflate the two, or (b) meaningless semantic nitpicking and a transparent ploy to get the White House off the hook. How many of those people would have magically switched sides in this semantic dispute if this was the Clinton White House we were talking about?