In the middle of the political maelstrom yesterday over President Bush’s decision to go forward with handing over management several major American ports to a United Arab Emirates-owned company, there were few answers to the most critical questions about the deal: First, what are the critics’ concrete security concerns, beyond the fact that the U.A.E. was the launching point for two of the 9/11 hijackers? And second, are those concerns legit?
Given that the “critics” this time ranged across the entire political spectrum, it should have been easy to press them on what specific fears this deal inspires.
And yet, looking at three of four major national papers, there was no attempt to vet these concerns, or even describe them beyond saying, vaguely, as the Washington Post did, “Critics note that the United Arab Emirates has been a home base for terrorists,” or, even more vaguely in USA Today, that the deal “could jeopardize national security.”
To be fair, the politicians criticizing the deal haven’t been very specific themselves. But we expect a newspaper — especially one that aspires to a national audience — to take a step back and independently examine what the actual threat involved might be. And here, the Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times all fell short.
By way of contrast, this is how a New York Times’ article on the deal confronted the question: “The opposition to the deal brought expressions of befuddlement from shipping industry and port experts. The shipping business, they said, went global more than a decade ago, and foreign-based firms already control more than 30 percent of the port terminals in the United States.”
Then the Times actually interviewed someone who works for a port management company who said, “This kind of reaction is totally illogical. The location of the headquarters of a company in the age of globalism is irrelevant.” It also noted that customs agents and other government officials are the ones in charge of port security, not the firm managing the port.
By bringing a sense of proportion to the story, the Times managed to take a position on the issue without actually taking a position. Its reporting leads to only one conclusion: there is plenty wrong with port security in the U.S., but this deal isn’t the problem.
The Christian Science Monitor took it a step further: If the U.A.E. runs the ports, they might actually be safer. “In a weird way, the interagency review allows the U.S. to hold international companies to a higher level of standards and accountability,” the Monitor quotes Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, as saying. “There are some legitimate security concerns, but it’s going to come down to enforcement, and arguably at a higher standard than we have had in the past.”
The Monitor even pinpoints what might be an even more pressing concern, one we only wish Washington would get this hot and bothered about: “Security is a top priority at the ports, but there’s concern the Bush administration has not provided enough funds to properly pay for it. Earlier this month, the president of the American Association of Port Authorities complained that the $708 million allotted for maritime security over the past four years amounted to only one-fifth of what the port authorities had identified as needed to properly secure the ports.”
This will be the case no matter what other country, Britain or U.A.E., is running the ports.
Sometimes a political battle can become just that, a political battle, with the substance of what is being fought over completely sucked out of the debate. It’s the media’s job to remind us about that substance. If they too get seduced by the superficial tug of war — a phenomena we see, alas, in extremis every election year — then the public gets cheated out of an understanding of whether there is a real issue to be concerned about or just your typical inside-the-Beltway jockeying for power.