Wednesday, February 22, 2006

WSJ on the US ports issue [updated]

[Scroll down for updates]

And, surprisingly, the WSJ comes out in favor of the deal that would allow a United Arab Emirates company control of six major US ports. In fact they hope the president stands firm on his vow to veto any legislation brought forth stopping the sale. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the piece does make some valid points.

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.

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."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Kristie Clemens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection elaborated that "Customs and Border Protection has the sole responsibility for the cargo processing and cargo security, incoming and outgoing. The port authority sets the guidelines for the entire port, and port operators have to follow those guidelines." Again, nothing in the pending deal would affect that arrangement.

The piece also points out the bidding war for the British company began last autumn, the company accepted Dubai's offer last month (apparently the British company P&O, like Dick Cheney, doesn't have David Gregory's cell phone on speed dial either), and this only became a headline story when a Florida firm that is a partner with P&O in Miami, Continental Stevedoring and Terminals Inc. filed a suit to block the purpose which prompted the mayor of Miami to write a letter to the president. So it's not necessarily Bush who's acting on behalf of rich buddies helping them make another quick buck. Granted there's no reason an American company can't be put in charge of our own ports; Lord knows I'd much rather see that happen, but our people will still control security and our unions will still work the docks. The UAE has been something of an ally for us in the GWOT, so it's not like we just handed the ports to Iran. However Jimmy Carter is still in favor of the deal the last time we checked, so there's a big vote against the deal. But a broken clock is still right twice a day, even if it's wrong the other 99% of the time.

More food for thought. Hopefully similarly insightful pieces continue to come forward.

UPDATE @ 2:38PM: Found the WSJ article via Ace who makes some persuasive arguements contrary to the WSJ. He correctly points out that this could make it easier for an Arab with views sympathetic to al Qaeda to collect intel on the ports to find points of weakness for smuggling in who knows what. Sure they won't be security, but they'll have access to inner workings that a basic observer wouldn't.

UPDATE 2 @ 4:20PM: Hugh is interviewing Rear Admiral Craig Bone who is the director of port security who said he sees no change in security threat due to the change in management. He also makes the point just because they've got some access to the port, doesn't mean they've got unlimited access to everything. Security access is not granted to management firms. And while personnel screening for the Dubai company is done by the Dubai company alone, the process by which they do their security checks is submitted to port security agencies, so we'd supposedly know who's working for them and their background. The admiral goes on to say the global cooperation is what's really required solve the problem completely. We obviously can't control what's loaded onto a ship overseas. We also may not be able to control the crew of a ship in particular, so recon work at our ports is possible in a variety of ways, not just via the management company should it happen to be located in an area known for terrorist activity. I can see the point better safe than sorry. I still don't think there's a smoking gun for either side here yet.

UPDATE 3 @ 4:44PM: In From the Cold also appears to be cautiously opptomistic, if I may be so bold, as he reads through the NYSun.

But, on the other hand, it is reasonable to ask questions about the holding company, and what access--if any--it may have to sensitive shipping information, and potential ties may exist between the firm, its owners, and terrorist organizations.

As illustrated by the 9-11 Commission Report, some transactions within the UAE--particularly in the financial sector--tend to be a little murky. Before the Dubai holding company completes its takeover of P&O, Congress has a right to have its questions answered, by the administration and the UAE. If deal is above boards and security concerns are adequately addressed, then the deal should proceed.

I will agree with the Sun on one thing: some of the Congressmen opposing the port deal are certainly selective in their outrage with the UAE. As the paper notes, Senators Schumer, Clinton, Lautenberg, Dodd (and others) never uttered a peep when the Clinton Administration sold highly advanced F-16s to the UAE Air Force. But then again, consistency in national security matters has never been the Democrat's strong suit.

I think I've been on the same page since this story became the huge issue everyone's talking about. While it sounds bad that the ports would be managed by UAE, it isn't necessarily so. Let Congress have a look, and they'll presumably what the White House saw, nothing to keep the deal from moving forward. He's got two other posts on the ports here and here.