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NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL

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By Michelle Malkin  •  February 22, 2006 11:40 AM

Let’s take a closer look at a rose-colored Wall Street Journal editorial on the port deal that is garnering favorable reviews from some of my friends on the right.

Sayeth the WSJ:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is the latest Republican to broadcast his “independence” from President Bush on homeland security, yesterday joining Senator Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King and numerous state politicians in calling on the Administration to stop a deal that would allow a United Arab Emirates company to manage six major U.S. ports.

The Democrats are also piling on, and we’ll speak to that in a moment, but this behavior of Republicans strikes us as peculiar coming from people who claim to support the war on terror. Mr. Graham told Fox News that the Administration’s decision allowing the state-owned Dubai Ports World to run commercial operations at U.S. ports was “tone deaf politically.” The voluble Senator said this is no time “to outsource major port security to a foreign-based company” and that “most Americans are scratching their heads wondering, ‘Why this company, from this region, now?’ ”

Some of us are scratching our heads all right, but we’re wondering why Mr. Graham and others believe Dubai Ports World has been insufficiently vetted for the task at hand. So far, none of the critics have provided any evidence that the Administration hasn’t done its due diligence. The deal has been blessed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multiagency panel that includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security.

Contrary to the Journal editorial board’s assertion, critics have indeed provided evidence that due diligence was not done. As I noted on Monday, Rep. Peter King revealed the following:

The House Homeland Security Committee chairman said that, despite Chertoff’s explanation on ABC’s “This Week,” he still has strong concerns about the inquiry. “When I talk to the people actually involved in the process, it was very cursory, it was very superficial,” King said.

He said he found out about the purchase, which transfers operations at ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia to the Persian Gulf company, last Tuesday in meetings with senior Bush administration officials. “As I understand it, the whole process took only 20 to 25 days,” he said of the transaction. “There’s no way you can do a complete analysis in 20 to 25 days and that includes financial analysis.”

And there’s this:

The administration’s review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

And this from AP:

Bush didn’t know about ports deal

President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates until the deal already had been approved by his administration, the White House said Wednesday.

Defending the deal anew, the administration also said that it should have briefed Congress sooner about the transaction, which has triggered a major political backlash among both Republicans and Democrats…

The Journal approvingly cites the blessing of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which “includes representatives from the departments of Treasury, Defense and Homeland Security,” but offers nothing more.

Do not be reassured. The business-as-usual Journal editorial writers may have complete faith in this panel’s dealings. You should not.

Fact: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in his press briefing yesterday that he only learned of the deal over the weekend.

SEC. RUMSFELD: There were Defense Department and — I think as I said, there were six departments that were involved in the process in one way or another, and the Defense Department was one of them. The lead was the Department of Homeland Security.

Q Are you confident that any problems with security — from what you know, are you confident that any problems with security would not be greater with a UAE company running this than an American company?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I am reluctant to make judgments based on the minimal amount of information I have, because I just heard about this over the weekend.

Fact: The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has been little more than a rubber stamp on sensitive foreign acquisitions since its founding. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who has followed the panel’s dealings extensively, pointed out:

This is not the first time this interagency panel – called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States – has made an astounding call about the transfer of control of strategically sensitive U.S. assets to questionable purchasers. In fact, as of last summer, CFIUS had, since its creation in 1988, formally rejected only one of 1,530 transactions submitted for its review.

Such a record is hardly surprising given that the committee is chaired by the Treasury Department, whose institutional responsibilities include promoting foreign investment in the United States. Treasury has rarely seen a foreign purchase of American assets that it did not like. And this bias on the part of the chairman of CFIUS has consistently skewed the results of the panel’s deliberations in favor of approving deals, even those opposed by other, more national security-minded departments. Thanks to the secrecy with which CFIUS operates, it is not clear at this writing whether any such objection was heard with respect to the idea of contracting out management of six of our country’s most important ports to a UAE company.

Moreover, it’s not clear who exactly reviewed the approval at the Pentagon and Homeland Security. Gaffney observes, “Past experience suggests the job may have fallen to lower-level career bureaucrats who give priority to maintaining good relations with their foreign ‘clients,’ like the UAE.”

Contiuing on with the blithe spirits at the WSJ:

Yes, some of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE citizens. But then the London subway bombings last year were perpetrated by citizens of Britain, home to the company (P&O) that currently manages the ports that Dubai Ports World would take over. Which tells us three things: First, this work is already being outsourced to “a foreign-based company”; second, discriminating against a Mideast company offers no security guarantees because attacks are sometimes homegrown; and third, Mr. Graham likes to talk first and ask questions later.

First, the deal will outsource port operations not just to any “foreign-based company”–but to a state-owned entity based in a known transit point for al Qaeda operatives and a key transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Second, of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect defense. Should we never subject any Mideast companies or individuals to heightened scrutiny because it would offer “no security guarantees?”

Can the Journal editorial board be that dense? Well, this is the open-borders editorial board that routinely misstates immigration law, resorts to pathetic ad hominem attacks on immigration enforcement advocates, and believes that since we can’t deport all illegal aliens in the country, we shouldn’t deport any and just amnestize them all instead. Andy McCarthy had the same reaction.

Continuing:

Besides, the notion that the Bush Administration is farming out port “security” to hostile Arab nations is alarmist nonsense. Dubai Ports World would be managing the commercial activities of these U.S. ports, not securing them. There’s a difference. Port security falls to Coast Guard and U.S. Customs officials. “Nothing changes with respect to security under the contract,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday. “The Coast Guard is in charge of security, not the corporation.”

Missing. The. Point. The issue is not whether day-to-day, on-the-ground conditions at the ports would change. They presumably wouldn’t. The issues are whether we should grant the demonstrably unreliable UAE access to sensitive information and management plans about our key U.S ports, which are plenty insecure enough without adding new risks, and whether the decision process was thorough and free from conflicts of interest.

The Journal and the Bush administration make no persuasive case that it was.

(The Washington Times adds that “company officials would be briefed on security procedures and countermeasures that, if compromised, could allow foreign terrorists to get through various screening procedures.” Moreover, while the Coast Guard is responsible for port security, tracking ships, crews and cargo and search vessels based on intelligence, “there is no cohesive hiring or screening process for port workers.”)

And more from the WSJ:

As for the Democrats, we suppose this is a two-fer: They have a rare opportunity to get to the right of the GOP on national security, and they can play to their union, anti-foreign investment base as well. At a news conference in front of New York harbor, Senator Chuck Schumer said allowing the Arab company to manage ports “is a homeland security accident waiting to happen.” Hillary Clinton is also along for this political ride.

So the same Democrats who lecture that the war on terror is really a battle for “hearts and minds” now apparently favor bald discrimination against even friendly Arabs investing in the U.S.? Guantanamo must be closed because it’s terrible PR, wiretapping al Qaeda in the U.S. is illegal, and the U.S. needs to withdraw from Iraq, but these Democratic superhawks simply will not allow Arabs to be put in charge of American longshoremen. That’s all sure to play well on al Jazeera.

On the hypocrisy of the Democrats, I completely concur with the Journal. See my column: They are all profilers now. But that’s about the only thing I agree with in the piece.

It’s time to get heads out of the sand and stop drinking the Kool-Aid: In a post-9/11 world, the first-ever sale involving U.S. port operations to a foreign, state-owned company demands much more than a business-as-usual rubber stamp. Outside the Beltway, this is gob-smackingly obvious. James Lileks speaks for many:

We’re told we’re at war, and we reach back for the wartime memories we all saw in the movies and read in the novels: Yanks walking along fences with a dog, rifle on the shoulder, searchlight playing on the ground, stealthy foes ever at the perimeter. It was never that tight, of course; it was never that dramatic. But there were the constant imprecations to be vigilant, because peril lurked. That would have been undercut, perhaps, if the Roosevelt Administration had given port control to Franco.

Well, not the best analogy, perhaps. But the specifics don’t matter; arguments about the specific nature of the Dubai Ports World organization’s global reach and responsible track records don’t matter. Because it feels immediately, instinctively wrong to nearly every American, and that isn’t something that can be argued away with charts or glossy brochures. It just doesn’t sit well. Period. It’s one thing for an Administration to misjudge how a particular decision will be received; it’s another entirely to misjudge an issue that cuts to the core of the Administration’s core strength. That’s where you slap yourself on the forehead in the style of those lamenting the failure to request a V-8 in a timely fashion. Doesn’t matter whether it was a deal struck between the previous administrators and the UAE; that’s not how the issue will be seen. And it certainly doesn’t matter once the President gets all stern on the topic and insists he’ll veto any attempt to keep the deal from going through. At that point, millions of previously resolute supporters stand there with their mouths open, uttering a soft confused moan of disbelief.

The White House isn’t merely tone-deaf on this matter. It is stone-blind.

***

Afterthought: Some Bush defenders are accusing opponents of the deal of emotional hyperventilation. But it’s their own blustery rationalizations that are light on evidence. And the only hyperventilating I see is coming from UAE officials crying “Islamophobia.”

***

Dafydd at Big Lizards has a concrete proposal for addressing the port sellout’s political and security concerns:

Neither side has noticed that there is a fairly obvious compromise staring us in the face, which Big Lizards believes would resolve the very real security concerns without losing the equally real security benefits from this deal.

Both the actual national-security risk and also the political danger come, not from the ownership of the company, but rather from the day to day management — the actual control of operations. The emirate wants the profits that accrue from ownership; rational Americans want to see control of the port, even the cargo areas, in friendly hands, preferably American.

This suggests a workable compromise: an American company should be chartered — American owned and American managed — that is a wholly owned but independently operated subsidiary of Dubai Ports… call it American Port Services, Inc., or somesuch name that makes clear the nationality; and then let all the actual management of the ports be handled by the American APS, not by Dubai Ports.

President Bush’s obstinate veto threat notwithstanding, someone in Congress should investigate this option.

***

Rick Moran:

On its surface, there really is little to be upset about with allowing the Dubai based company to handle the management of the ports. DPW has contracts at ports all over the world and has proved itself competent enough. There would be a minimal change in employees at the six ports in question. Ships would still have to be offloaded by the Longshoremen, as patriotic and security conscious bunch as there is in the United States. And as AJ Strata rightly points out, actual security of the ports would still be in the hands of the Coast Guard and the Port Authority.

So what’s the problem? The problem is in the atmospherics of this deal.

The problem is with the tone deaf bureaucrats of CFIUS who okayed this deal in the first place. They may have gotten some DoD flunky to vote for it in Committee but not bothering to brief the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff about it only contributes to the notion that they are not taking port security very seriously.

The problem is with the incompetence (or arrogance) of the supposedly vaunted White House political operation in treating this deal like a routine transaction when the involvement of a Middle Eastern country whose toleration and support for the Wahhabi brand of Islam was sure to cause trouble on the Hill. Then there’s also the minor matter involving the UAE being a banking Mecca for terrorism. I find it more than a little ironic that monies we’re pouring into the banking system of that country could be used to plan and carry out attacks against our own country.

The problem was in not recognizing that the deal would give your ravenous and out of control enemies on the left and in the press a great big T-Bone steak of an issue to chew on in the immediate aftermath of the Cheney debacle. These are people who were gnawing on your leg while bodies were still floating in the floodwaters of New Orleans. Just what in God’s name were they thinking?

The problem is that given the lukewarm response of our government to the cartoon jihad, the President’s strongest and most vocal supporters would see this deal as one more nod, one more cave-in to Muslim sensibilities rather than the good business deal it almost certainly is. Taking the base for granted in anything is bad politics. In this case, it demonstrates an ineptness that would be troubling if we weren’t getting used to it by now…

Jim Geraghty has a different take.

Howard Kurtz sketches out a chronology.

***

Previous:

Bush digs in
Sen. Frist on the port sellout
How the port sellout was financed
Chuck Schumer hearts Halliburton
Protect our ports: steam builds
Banned in the UAE
Our ports, our sovereignty
Stop the port sellout

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