Thursday, February 17, 2011

FACT CHECK: Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle Misleads On Arizona Border Security

Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle (R-CD3) released a statement today using a new GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on border security to slam DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary - and former Arizona Governor - Janet Napolitano.  However, by intentionally using a much lower, overall calculation of operational control over the U.S./Mexico border and then applying it to the more secure Arizona portion of the border, Rep. Quayle apparently decided to mislead his constituents.

Quayle's statement touts the Tuesday report from the "non-partisan" (politicians often use that term when the GAO states something that they like) GAO titled "BORDER SECURITY: Preliminary Observations On Border Control Measures For the Southwest Border".  Quayle noted that the report
"...found that only 44 percent of the Southern side of the U.S./Mexican border is under 'operational control.  The report contradicts recent statements made by Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano that the border is more secure.
“The GAO’s report confirms what Arizonans already knew to be true: the U.S./Mexican border is far from secure. Even the most artful political spin cannot change that fact. Arizonans aren’t interested in the pie-charts and statistics coming out of Washington, they want our borders secure and the violence to cease. Just this week, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were shot outside of Mexico City. And on the U.S. side of the border, Arizona ranchers have to deal with the constant threat of violence from drug and human smugglers. Securing our borders shouldn’t be a partisan issue on Capitol Hill. I look forward to working with both parties to find effective solutions to the problem, but we cannot keep waiting and hoping the problem will just disappear. ”
Yes, the report does state (on page 7) that the "Border Patrol reported achieving varying levels of operational control of 873 (44 percent) of the nearly 2,000 southwest border miles at the end of fiscal year 2010.  The number of reported miles under operational control increased an average of 126 miles per year from fiscal years 2005 through 2010."

So, not only is the Border Patrol continuing to put more of the U.S./Mexico border under "operational control" - as opposed to Quayle's "waiting and hoping" comment - but the 44% number is for the entire southwest border with Mexico.  A quick and easy check of the next paragraph and the accompanying figure (Figure 3) shows that the Yuma sector is 100% under operational control, and that the Tucson sector is at 70%.  That means that the Arizona/Mexico border is actually at about 80% "operational control" (and the rest is "monitored").

None of the facts in Rep. Quayle's are incorrect (although some of his rhetoric appears to be misleading).  However, juxtaposition matters.  In this case, he has only cited the 44% figure, purposely ignored the 100% and 70% figures for the Arizona sectors, yet repeatedly referred to Arizona, Arizonans, Arizona ranchers.  The conclusion can only be that the statement misleads his constituents into believing that more than half of Arizona's border is out of control.

(Warning: Fact-checking/journalism wonk discussion ahead:) You may be wondering why "juxtaposition matters,"  and whether it is legitimate to diss a politician - or others - for saying/writing things that are correct yet still create a false impression.  Especially when he or she (or they) have omitted relevant facts.  I have often wondered that, too.  This is what I found and why I decided to downgrade Rep. Quayle's full statement.

The two highest-profile fact-checking organizations have both repeatedly recognized the way in which juxtaposition of true comments or images can still earn the speaker/writer/etc low fact-checking marks.  Two recent examples which I found yesterday: (1) dinged the Crossroads organization for juxtaposing a candidate's comment that the healthcare reform bill would reduce deficits with the announcer's intonation that "instead, we got... record deficits".  As Factcheck points out, the deficits were not caused by the healthcare reform law; (2) hammered Sen. Harry Reid for implying in December that Arizona Sen. John McCain did not support repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" because of the economy.  Reid omitted the context that McCain was talking about relative priorities; and (3) PolitiFact rated as "barely true" a Congressional candidate who lauded former President Reagan's tax cuts for creating exponential growth while omitting the fact that Reagan later had to approve substantial tax increases.

Also relevant is how our justice system is handling such situations.  Courts in several states have recognized a cause of action known as "defamation by implication".  In fact, it is set forth in one of the key legal texts (by Prosser and Keeton) on tort laws: Defamation by implication occurs where "the defendant juxtaposes a series of facts so as to imply a defamatory connection between them, or creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts."  (A classic case is from the 1970's in Tennessee, where a news report noted that a woman shot her husband and another woman when she found them together in the second woman's living room;" the report neglected to mention that there were others in the room at the time, thereby putting the lie to the implication that they were in the living room having "an adulterous affair".)

Rep. Quayle's statement deserves a clarification, and Arizona's Politics has asked for one.  Until then, Quayle deserves his grade of "D" (which also stands for "deceptive").

We welcome your comments about this post. Or, if you have something unrelated on your mind, please e-mail to info-at-arizonaspolitics-dot-com. Thanks.

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