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Port Insecurity

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After hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast region in late August, and the not only the Bush administration but the nation’s entire homeland security apparatus revealed itself to be fundamentally dysfunctional, reporters flirted, briefly, with the notion that in the five years since 9/11 our government has failed in its most fundamental responsibility: to provide for the security of its citizenry. The moment passed, however, together with the crying anchors and the angry poor people and soon enough, the media returned to the normalcy of denial.

Here we go again. Now that the Bush administration has blundered into another potential PR disaster by inviting a company from the United Arab Emirates company to buy a stake in several American ports, one would hope that this would finally bring about a long overdue examination of just what the heck has been going on with their attempts to protect the nation from another terrorist attack. One would, however, be hoping in vain.

Over and over the story that should have remained at the center of our debate since our myriad vulnerabilities were revealed to us in the deadliest of fashions, the homeland security continues to fall through a journalistic black hole. Stories are scattered throughout the mainstream media that, taken together, illustrate the administration’s failure to protect nuclear weapons materials in the former Soviet Union; its refusal to protect water supplies and chemical and nuclear plants and its failure to increase security surrounding container cargo traffic at shipping ports, among other blind spots in the “war on terror”. While Bush managed to eek out a victory in 2004 by attacking his opponent’s credentials on security issues, it could do only in the absence of a careful — or even casual – perusal of its record by the leading members of the press. As far back as February 2003, an alarming report by the (usually quite staid) Brookings Institution, warned: “President Bush vetoed several specific (and relatively cost-effective) measures proposed by Congress that would have addressed critical national vulnerabilities. As a result, the country remains more vulnerable than it should be today.” Three years later, history is repeating itself, this time as deadly farce. Tuesday night, ABC News’ Elizabeth Vargas asked the President about the administration’s response to Katrina, and the failures of the Homeland Security Department, an institution the president opposed until it became politically impossible to do so. The President admitted, “There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground…in many cases we were relying upon the media, who happened to have better situational awareness than the government.”

Viewers must have been confused. Was that supposed to be an excuse or an explanation? How in the world was such a failure possible four years after 9/11? The President even offered DHS head Michael Chertoff his own “Brownie” moment during the interview, saying that he thinks he’s “doing a fine job”. Given the President’s assessment of Michael Brown’s job in New Orleans and the Presidential Medial of Freedom be bestowed on Paul “Pace Yourself” Bremer and George “Slam Dunk” Tenet – one can only imagine what it takes to demonstrate genuine incompetence in this administration. Despite the president’s indifference to the very real failings of the homeland security apparatus, the media’s response has been scattershot. Occasionally, we happen upon a fine story like that which ran in The Washington Post back on September 11, 2005, in which we discovered that despite the almost $2 billion spent to protect the metro Washington D.c= area over the past several years, “security officials in the region concede that they fear another major terrorist strike would result in the kind of chaos and confusion seen along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.” By and large, stories like this run, are forgotten, and the national conversation ignores the dangers they attempted to explain.

A New York Times piece ran around the same time, once again calling attention to the lack of any meaningful security arrangements to protect the nation’s chemical plants. Richard A. Falkenrath, a former deputy homeland security adviser to the White House, told the paper that the government’s efforts have “done little to make the public safer.” “Saying that you're doing something doesn't mean you're actually making a difference,” he said. All this, despite the rosy proclamations from the administration, and report after report – from both think tanks and government agencies, lamenting the sorry state of homeland security. And these reports have been coming in since the beginning of the Bush administration. On September 25, 2001, Joseph Nye wrote in the New Republic that “Five years ago, with James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I headed a government study that found a lack of preparedness to face catastrophic terrorism. Our warnings and those of similar groups went largely unheeded.” Another first-rate examination of the DHS ran in The Washington Post in December 2005, and explained here that one of Tom Ridge’s “top advisors” told the Post, “The White House did not support us…It was if the White House created us and then set out to marginalize us.”…The White House and Congress had left [Ridge’s] powers unclear, and many key tasks had to be shared with other departments under contradictory laws and presidential directives. In some ways, Ridge's aides came to believe, they had even less power than when they were mere presidential staffers.” Even as this evidence of administration neglect has slowly piled up over the past four and a half years since the September 11 attacks, the media have found themselves preoccupied with other matters, failing even to cover with any seriousness the release of the final report of the 9/11 commission which offered yet another warning of concerted failure after failure to protect the nation.

And what of Dubai and the ports? Well, it’s almost a luxury we can afford even to worry about who owns them, given just how insecure they will remain regardless. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told the Washington Post in December 2002 that there is "virtually no security for what is the primary system to transport global trade," namely, the 21,000 shipping containers that arrive in U.S. ports every day. As it stands, less than two percent of these containers are checked when arriving in American ports.

That’s the real scandal. Just don’t expect to read or hear much about it any time soon.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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