Friday, February 24, 2006

Froomkin Summarizes Why The Ports Issue Remains A Problem For The Preznit

First, the good news for the Bush administration (via the Washington Post):

Facing unrelenting political and national security concerns, an Arab maritime company offered late last night to delay part of its $6.8 billion deal to take over significant operations at six U.S. ports, after White House aide Karl Rove suggested that President Bush could accept some delay of the deal.

The surprise announcement should give Bush extra time to try to convince lawmakers from both parties that the port deal does not present an avenue for terrorists to exploit the nation's vulnerable and heavily populated seaports. Earlier in the day, Republican and Democratic senators questioned whether the Bush administration followed federal law when it approved Dubai Ports World's purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., also known as P&O. That purchase will give the Dubai-owned firm managerial control over operations at six ports, including those of New York and New Orleans.

Ten administration officials faced a barrage of questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee as they defended their decision to forgo a national security review of the deal. Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt said the decision last month to ratify the deal will be reconsidered only if officials find that officers of Dubai Ports World gave the government false, inaccurate or misleading information. But facing a bipartisan revolt over the deal, Rove told Fox News's "Tony Snow Show" that the White House could accept a delay in the transfer of port management, which is set for March 2.

"There are some hurdles, regulatory hurdles, that this still needs to go through on the British side, as well, that are going to be concluded next week," Rove said. "There's no requirement that it close, you know, immediately after that. But our interest is in making certain the members of Congress have full information about it, and that, we're convinced, will give them a level of comfort with this."

In an accord coordinated with the White House, Dubai Ports World agreed not to exercise control or influence the management of the U.S. ports while the administration talks with Congress. Other parts of the deal with P&O will go forward.

Now the bad news, via Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post:

President Bush has bought himself a little time to make his case that an Arab company should be allowed to take over operations at several U.S. seaports. But the port imbroglio threatens to develop real traction -- and not just because of the widespread outrage generated by the basic facts of the case.

The reporters and pundits I reference below see all sorts of worrisome and problematic things lurking just below the surface. Here are some of the problems they think are being exposed:

* The nation's serious, long-ignored vulnerabilities when it comes to port security.

* An enormous trade deficit that guarantees greater foreign ownership of U.S. assets of all kinds.

* The Bush White House's long tradition of stonewalling, misleading or just plain ignoring Congress.

* The lack of public trust fueled by excessive executive secrecy.

* The anti-Arab racism that has been a potent offshoot of the war on terror.

* More evidence of a president who is consistently out of the loop.

* The perils of living in a period of politics by hysteria -- even for its creator.

As usual, Froomkin does a terrific job of getting to the crux of an issue with the fewest words possible.

And I agree with him that this ports deal issue is far from over for Bushie. The Washington Times reported today that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was also unaware of the pending ports deal with the UAE company despite the fact that one of Chertoff's main duties as DHS chief is port security:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was not aware a Dubai-owned company was seeking to operate terminals in six U.S. ports and that his agency was leading the review until after the deal's approval, an administration official said yesterday.

Mr. Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, told The Washington Times the issue rose no higher than the department's assistant secretary for policy, Stewart Baker.

"[Chertoff] was not briefed up to this until after this story started appearing in the newspapers," Mr. Knocke said.

Mr. Chertoff is the third Cabinet official to acknowledge he did not know his agency had signed off on the plan as a member of the interagency Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS). Both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow have publicly said they were unaware of the deal.

But Mr. Chertoff's exclusion is more noteworthy because his department headed the CFIUS review and is in charge of security at all U.S. ports.

Mr. Knocke said the reason Mr. Chertoff was not informed was because CFIUS canvassed scores of government agencies and none objected to Dubai Ports World's (DPW) bid to buy terminal operations on national security grounds.

If there had been an objection, the committee would have conducted a more extensive 45-day investigation and notified Cabinet secretaries. The 12-member committee, which includes six Cabinet secretaries, on Jan. 17 approved the company buying a British firm that runs terminals at the ports.

The exclusion of top Cabinet secretaries such as Mr. Chertoff in the DPW review and the failure to notify President Bush of its approval has helped fuel a firestorm of protest from Republicans and Democrats. Legislators say the Bush administration failed to adequately investigate the company.

So tell me how George Bush argues how safe he's keeping us in the war on terror when his own Homeland Security chief, the man who is in charge of port security (and the man who bungled the Katrina aftermath last year!), was completely unaware that six U.S. ports were about to be run by a government-owned Dubai company until the story broke in the press?

It seems to me that this Dubai deal story emphasizes all of the negative storylines surrounding the administration (like Bush is clueless, the administration is too secretive and rife with cronyism, wtc.) and still has a few news cycles to go before Karl Rove gets it off the front pages.

Especially if more shoes drop about how the administration handled (or didn't handle) this deal.

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