Saturday, February 25, 2006

Reaping What You Sow

The New York Times
Reaping What You Sow

It's easy to imagine how the Bush administration might have defused much of the uproar over a deal to allow a company owned by the Dubai royal family in the United Arab Emirates to run six American ports. Members of Congress asked for consultation and reassurance that the deal would not compromise already iffy security at one of the most vulnerable parts of the nation's homeland defense system. What they got was a veto threat and a presidential suggestion that they were all anti-Arab.

If the administration is in trouble with Congress, it's long overdue. For years now, the White House has stonewalled Congressional committees attempting to carry out their oversight duties. Administration officials appearing before Senate and House committees have given testimony that was, to put it generously, knowingly misleading. Requests for information have been simply waved away with an invocation of national security. Just recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee attempted to get information on the administration's extralegal wiretapping, but was told that it would compromise national security to tell the senators how the program works, how it is reviewed, how much information is collected and how that information is used.

The chickens are coming home to roost. A White House that routinely brands anyone who disagrees with its positions as soft on terrorism is now complaining that election-bound lawmakers are callously using the ports deal to frighten voters. A White House that invaded Iraq as a substitute for defeating Al Qaeda is frustrated because Congress is using the company, Dubai Ports World, as a stand-in for all the intractable perils of the Middle East.

As satisfying as it may be to see the tables turning, though, there is a serious issue at hand. The United Arab Emirates deserves a serious, respectful explanation if Dubai Ports World is not going to be given the right to manage American ports — a right that has already been granted to companies from countries like Britain and China.

The United Arab Emirates is an ally. But the money to finance the Sept. 11 attacks flowed through that country, according to the 9/11 commission. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, sent equipment to Libya and Iran through Dubai, helping to create nuclear weapons capacity for those two regimes. And while port managers have little if anything to do with inspecting cargo or checking manifests, they are responsible for hiring guards, securing the areas under their control and working with Customs and Homeland Security officials.

The administration argues that the ports deal was thoroughly vetted, and that proper safeguards are in place to prevent any possible security breaches. That argument might hold if the White House had a good track record on these kinds of sweeping assurances.

As it is, we know that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved the sale in what appears to have been handled as a fairly routine matter. We know that same committee has been sharply criticized by the Government Accountability Office for letting the desire for foreign investment override concerns for national security. And we also know that the Homeland Security Department, which has done nothing to earn the public's trust as of yet, did not request any extended review of the deal. That is what many members of Congress are asking for now.

One reason for the current uproar is the halfhearted way the Bush administration has dealt with the issue of port security. Screening incoming containers for nuclear devices is one of the most important missions in any war on terrorism. But the White House has never made it a top priority, and it has opposed those in Congress who have.

The president's main budget priority continues to be tax cuts, and he has not fought for the money needed to keep the ports secure. The administration has worked to eliminate a port-security grant program from the budget. The money that has been available has not been used effectively. The Homeland Security Department's own inspector general reported last year that 80 percent of the allocated funds had not yet been spent, and that scarce dollars for ports were going to places like Martha's Vineyard, which are not likely terrorist targets.

The management of cargo inspections has also been criticized as woefully inadequate. A Government Accountability Office report last year found serious deficiencies in things like the reliability of radiation detection equipment and decisions about which and how many incoming containers to inspect.

Mr. Bush and his defenders say the last thing America needs is more bad publicity in the Arab world. They're right. But this problem won't be resolved by the administration's standard demands that Congress and the public should let it do what it wants and trust Mr. Bush's good judgment.