Wash. Post, NY Times adopted White House port deal claims that contradict own news reporting

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

A Washington Post editorial adopted several claims that the Bush administration has made in defense of its agreement to let a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) manage six U.S. ports, even though those claims are contradicted by the Post's own news reporting. News reports in the Post and The New York Times also cited without challenge the administration claims about the length of the review, even though their own previous reporting directly contradicted the claims.

In a February 24 editorial, The Washington Post adopted several claims that the Bush administration has made in defense of its agreement to let a company owned by the government of Dubai -- a member state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- manage six U.S. ports, even though those claims are contradicted by the Post's own news reporting. The administration claims that the deal with UAE-owned Dubai Ports World was given a three-month review by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), and also says that fears of a potential security threat posed by the deal are exaggerated, given that the U.S. Coast Guard and federal Customs agencies are responsible for security at American ports. In fact, the Post itself has previously reported that the committee only convened once during a 23-day review of the deal, and that the administration claim about the Coast Guard and Customs agencies "overstates the role government agencies play."

The same administration claims about the length of the review were also cited without challenge in February 24 news reports by the Post as well as The New York Times, which has also directly contradicted the claims in its own previous reporting.

In the editorial, titled "How to Lose Friends," the Post argued that concerns about U.S. ports being run by the Dubai government are overblown "because security there is controlled by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, no matter who's doing the accounting":

[A]s administration officials testified yesterday, since Sept. 11 the United Arab Emirates has been a valuable ally. Last year, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, 56 U.S. warships, 590 U.S. Military Sealift Command ships and 75 allied warships were hosted in the United Arab Emirates -- at a port managed by the very same Dubai Ports World. To our knowledge, none of the objecting members of Congress have expressed alarm at the national security implications of that situation. Yet the six ports now in question will be far less dependent on Dubai's goodwill, because security there is controlled by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, no matter who's doing the accounting.

But the editorial's assertion was directly contradicted by a Post article published that same day. In an article suggesting that the "real grounds for concern [about port security] lie elsewhere" than the Dubai port deal, staff writers Paul Blustein and Walter Pincus nonetheless noted that the administration claim that "security at U.S. ports is the responsibility" of the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) "overstates the role government agencies play":

Administration officials have asserted in recent days that security at U.S. ports is the responsibility of the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with the terminal operators responsible for little more than transferring containers from ships to railroad cars and trucks.

That overstates the role government agencies play. "They've been saying that customs and the Coast Guard are in charge of security; yes, they're in charge, but they're not usually present," said Carl Bentzel, a former congressional aide who helped write the 2002 act regulating port security.

The private terminal operators are almost always responsible for guarding the area around their facilities, although they must submit their security plans to the Coast Guard, which monitors and inspects them. In some cases, the companies X-ray incoming containers to see whether the contents appear to match the manifest, although customs agents are solely responsible for "intrusive" inspections -- that is, opening containers and examining the cargo. That procedure is performed on about 5 percent of containers entering the United States.

The Post editorial also adopted the administration claim, recently espoused by Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the CFIUS "examined the deal over a three-month period and found it acceptable," and that senators critical of the deal had little reason to believe the review was "casual" or "cursory":

Twelve government departments and agencies, including the departments of Treasury, State, Defense and Homeland Security, had examined the deal over a three-month period and found it acceptable. Perhaps the White House should have anticipated this week's political storm and prepared for it. But because the objections are irrational, even that complaint is questionable.

At a hearing yesterday, senators complained that they had not been notified of the transaction -- though, as Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt noted, the companies involved had issued a press release on the matter in November. Senators complained, in the face of considerable testimony to the contrary, that the government's review had been "casual" or "cursory."

The Post editorial failed to explore why, or even explain how the administration account dramatically differed from the account the administration had previously given to House aides, according to a February 23 Post report by staff writers Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman:

The U.S. government reviews business transactions with national security implications and decided after a 23-day review by mid-level officials that Dubai Ports World posed no threat.

[...]

In a private briefing for House aides late yesterday, administration officials from the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security said the CFIUS met only once during a 23-day review of the sale and that the few objections raised were quickly addressed.

Moreover, Weisman apparently disregarded his own report from the previous day when he uncritically cited, in a February 24 Post article, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England's claim that the CFIUS review was "definitely not cursory."

In a February 24 article by reporters David S. Cloud and David E. Sanger, the Times also uncritically reported the administration's claims about the length of the CFIUS review. Cloud and Sanger twice noted that Kimmitt said the review had lasted for three months while also noting that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the review had lasted 30 days. But Cloud and Sanger failed to identify the discrepancy in the two accounts, or that the administration version of events contradicted the Times' previous reporting:

Critics of the deal said earlier in the day that a delay was insufficient.

"A simple 30-day cooling off period without the full 45-day review that should have been done from the beginning is not adequate," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

[...]

The group, led by the deputy Treasury secretary, Robert M. Kimmitt, said that the administration's interagency review of the transaction had taken three months, and that the Dubai company had been willing to address concerns raised by the Department of Homeland Security.

[...]

But Mr. Kimmitt said "all of those concerns were addressed" in the administration's initial, three-month examination of the deal. When the interagency panel charged with reviewing foreign acquisitions met in mid-January -- its only formal meeting on the Dubai Ports World acquisition -- no agency raised further national concerns, Mr. Kimmitt said. That made an additional 45-day review unnecessary, he said.

Like Schumer, a February 21 Times article noted that Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY) also "said the review was conducted in just 30 days."

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