The public relations war


In the public-relations war, President Bush seems to have won one and lost one, dodging the bullet on the warrantless wiretapping issue while suffering a major defeat in the matter of outside control of U.S. ports.

It’s not terribly surprising that public reaction to the prospect of an Arab nation with links to terrorists managing six major American harbors would stimulate an overwhelmingly negative response from voters. Nor is it at all curious that both houses of Congress would then set out to upset the deal with the United Arab Emirates. The House Appropriations Committee made that clear with a 62 to 2 vote to deny the contract.

More disconcerting to civil libertarians, however, is the at least temporary capitulation to the White House by the Senate’s Republicans over bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor calls between the United States and overseas locations. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted to set up a separate panel to oversee the program rather than undertake a major investigation into whether the president had violated the law as charged by many Democrats.

Americans seem to be pretty evenly divided over the wiretap issue with most of them ambivalent about the potential dangers to their civil rights. Not so, however, on the question of whether the UAE should manage the ports security officials have repeatedly warned are among the most potentially vulnerable to terrorist incursion.

House members, always more sensitive to the political ramifications in their districts, have heard about little else during trips home and Republican members, particularly antsy about the November elections, have forced the issue with their leaders. The result, of course, is the expected overwhelming rejection of Dubai by the full house. It will be difficult for the Senate, whose leaders have joined the White House in seeking to defuse the issue by delaying the contract, not to follow suit.

Since the controversy over the ports erupted, it has been obvious that it was an easily understood issue that would strike home with most Americans who openly demanded to know why the U.S. was assigning port management to any foreign company, especially a Middle Eastern one. All assurances by the White House that security would still belong to this nation and that there is no danger from Dubai have failed to resonate.

Despite the potential threat of constitutional abuse by the National Security Agency’s program of international eavesdropping without court sanction, the public has not reacted the same way. That’s easily understood. While unauthorized wiretapping and interception of e-mail is among the potentially most invasive government actions, few Americans believe it actually impacts them, particularly since both the president and the attorney general have pledged that it doesn’t extend to purely domestic transmissions.

The Democrats and civil libertarians aren’t likely to drop this issue and should the NSA with White House and Justice Department backing push demands to explore who leaked the information to the press, there is certain to be a new round of publicity. Obviously The New York Times, which revealed the practice after holding back for a year because of security concerns, isn’t going away. Having won at least a small victory in keeping the Democrats from exploiting the issue in the Senate, the president might be better advised to go easy on a subsequent leak investigation.

Another attempt to force the press into giving up sources, once again raising serious First Amendment questions, is not what the administration needs at the moment, particularly as it tries to get its act together for the November midterm congressional elections. Parading a group of nationally recognized reporters and commentators to the witness stand in the case against former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame matter should be volatile enough.

If Democrats win control of even one house this fall, all bets are off on the wiretapping and any other controversial issue for Bush. It took more than a year to convince the Congress, with his party in solid control, to extend the Patriot Act and even then with some restrictions.

As has been noted, some public relations sense could have prevented the port contract from exploding in the president’s face. In reality, the eavesdropping gaffe is far more serious because it concerns his obligations under the law. He may have succeeded in escaping from that one for the moment. Still, his overwhelming rejection by members of his own party on the port issue could be a harbinger of more bad times for Bush.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)