Wondering what the Bush administration is doing to protect you from the catastrophic terrorist attack it keeps telling us to expect? Here's what my Internet search turned up in the way of press coverage: The Christian Science Monitor reported that Border Patrol agents – increasingly feel unsupported by the country they are trying to protect – even though they are supposed to be playing a key role in homeland defense; Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) revealed that the Bush administration's new budget provides no funds for a project she sponsored to track cargo coming through American ports. Then, there was the disturbing story uncovered by the House Homeland Security Committee: When inspectors testing the capabilities of the U.S. Park Police deliberately left a suspicious black bag on the grounds of the Washington Monument, the police failed to respond quickly or effectively. One officer reportedly was caught sleeping. When a committee official called the Department of Homeland Security, he got a recording: "Due to the high level of interest in the new department, all of our lines are busy. However, your call is important to us and we encourage you to call back soon."
Scary? Sure, but as Bob Dole might say, "Where's the outrage?"
One answer is that the media have been burying these stories. Not one of these disturbing accounts of administration failure made it to the front pages of America's papers. Not even Murray's hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, gave her complaints much attention. The port security story appeared on page B1, even though Washington State is peculiarly vulnerable to a bomb hidden in incoming cargo.
Perhaps editors simply believe Bush administration's indifference to cargo security to be old news. After all, when the Bush administration suddenly discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration was running low on funds last year, officials quietly raided the cargo program budget for the money they needed. To force the government to spend the money Congress appropriated, Murray had to put a hold on a budget nominee. In the end, of the $75 million Congress appropriated for the cargo program, the government spent just $58 million. Even worse, the administration is appropriating just 7 percent of the $7.3 billion that the Coast Guard estimates it will need to implement the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) to be over 10 years. In that case, we can expect to be protected by roughly 2018 or so.
It would be one thing if the administration were known for its penny-pinching. But a government which has just committed $87 billion to Iraq can't make the claim that it's a careful and prudent steward of taxpayer funds.
Not that the Bush administration hasn't tried. Asked about the administration's crimped spending on port security, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge responded, "We need to have a public debate as to whether or not it is the taxpayer's responsibility to continue to fund port security whether or not since these basically are intermodal facilities where the private sector moves goods in and out for profit, that they would be responsible for picking up most of the difference."
Astonished at his answer, Murray retorted, "I'm listening to your logic, but I would just respectfully say that if one terminal or port in this country said, 'We're not going to ante up the money – we don't have it,' and a terrorist used that weak link to come into this country – all of us would be paying for the consequences of that."
So now we are going to privatize national security involving American ports? Surely this should have made front-page news. It didn't even make the back pages. The New York Times has yet to mention Ridge's misguided scheme to privatize port security in the name of saving money, though it gave plenty of notice to the 10 percent increase in the department's budget next year to $40 billion. Was it too complicated to mention in passing that while the department seems to be spending a lot of money it is shortchanging one of the most vital programs it runs?
It's not as if these are difficult stories to cover. Indeed, they tend to provide the kind of simple narratives the media usually prefer. And nothing sells like stories about government mismanagement. NBC News has turned such stories into show-stopping ratings bonanzas for years.
The chief consequence of media inattentiveness is that the public has no real idea if the Bush administration is doing a good or a bad job protecting the homeland. About the only time homeland security even merits much public notice these days is when Ridge announces that the government is picking up a lot of frightening terrorist chatter. And news of this kind is singularly unhelpful. The average citizen can't do anything with this information except reach for a Zantac=
The news that would be of help – news about the effectiveness of Ridge's operation – the media aren't providing in any detail. Do you have any real idea if Ridge is succeeding or failing? It's virtually impossible to say because the media haven't done enough stories to be able to determine if the port security case is a unique example of incompetence or part of a larger pattern.
In the absence of real knowledge, voters are relying on their partisan prejudice. As a Republican reader of the Buffalo News wrote in a letter to the editor complaining about the paper's coverage of Bush's war on terrorism, the Bush administration must be doing a great job because "since 9/11, Bush and his team have batted 1,000 percent in protecting our land from a second attack." Huh? Not even the Bush administration claims that the absence of an attack is reason to cheer. As officials keep reminding us, another attack is inevitable.
So what gives? Why have the media not seen fit to assess the effectiveness of the homeland security measures the government is taking? It's evident that the media think by and large that the work of the Homeland Security Department is child's work compared with the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
To be sure, war is inherently more dramatic and deservedly draws our attention. But by defining the war on terrorism narrowly – as mainly about foreign wars – the media have allowed the administration to promote the politically winning narrative of a war president fighting distant enemies in a robust manner. Defining the war on terrorism this way gives the White House what it wants. Who, after all, wants to be caught second-guessing a president in the middle of a war? As we've seen over the last two years even Democrats who loathe the administration find it difficult to challenge the president's leadership as commander-in-chief.
While it is obvious why the administration keeps public attention focused on our foreign wars, it is not obvious why the media do too. Where's the debate about Ridge? Why, nearly two and a half years after 9/11, has the Homeland Security Department still not put in place a vigorous program to check cargo coming into American ports? There can't be too many tasks that are more important for the department than securing the cargo that comes in by the ton day after day.
If the Bush administration is right about our vulnerability to another major attack, the country will be asking, as it is now about 9/11, what went wrong? Unfortunately, the media will be in part to blame for not asking the questions that should have been asked.
Rick Shenkman is the editor of George Mason University's History News Network (http://hnn.us).