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White House's Katrina report less critical

A White House assessment of the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina calls for better defining the military's role during catastrophes, opening the door for the Pentagon to oversee government relief efforts in extreme cases, officials said Wednesday.

The "lessons learned" review of 125 recommendations, to be released today, does not call for any resignations, despite recent demands - mostly by Democrats - for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to step down. It also recommends keeping the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency under Chertoff's control.

Though some agencies, like the Coast Guard, successfully rescued tens of thousands of storm victims, "there are other areas where all levels of government fell short - the federal, the state and the local," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

"What we want to do is take a close look at what worked and what didn't work and apply those lessons to the future," he said.

The report, by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, was expected to be less scathing than a House report issued last week.

The House review blamed all levels of government for indifference toward disaster preparations that contributed to deaths and suffering in Katrina's aftermath. That study, by a Republican-led House committee, also found that earlier involvement by President Bush could have sped up the response.

Bush, who ordered the White House report, has accepted responsibility for the government's much-criticized response to the Aug. 29 storm. The hurricane killed 1,300 people and forced hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents to abandon their damaged or destroyed homes.

The review offers solutions to only some of the government's shortfalls, according to administration officials.

But the document, which a congressional aide said approaches 200 pages, proposes sweeping changes to federal response plans. Among those 125 findings is a call to make the military the lead agency to coordinate immediate relief when state and local resources are overwhelmed, one official said.

That would happen in only the worst of catastrophic disasters, such as storms of Katrina's magnitude and terror attacks.

Currently, the Homeland Security Department coordinates federal disaster relief under a national response plan it issued last year.

The president is scheduled to host a Cabinet meeting today to discuss the review, which will be released shortly afterward.

In remarks to state emergency managers last week, Townsend promised a critical look at the federal response.

"We should not pull any punches in our assessments of what went wrong - and we don't," she said.

She also said, "It does a disservice to us all when we judge in retrospect the decisions made and actions taken in the midst of a major disaster, without consideration of the fuller context."

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