Despite lack of investigation, pundits dismissed concerns by Congress and the public over port deal
Research ››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN
In recent days, numerous pundits have summarily dismissed concerns about the takeover of operations at six U.S. ports by a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that the Bush administration opted not to conduct the 45-day investigation into the deal's national security implications provided for -- and, critics argue, required -- by federal law.
In recent days, numerous pundits at news organizations ranging from Fox News to The New York Times have summarily dismissed concerns raised about the takeover of operations at six U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World (DPW) -- a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates. Despite the fact that the Bush administration opted not to conduct the 45-day investigation into the deal's national security implications provided for -- and, critics argue, required -- by federal law, these pundits have simply asserted that "the security argument is bogus" and have characterized such concerns as "racist," "borderline racist," and "total demagoguery on this issue."
As evidence for the supposed lack of a security threat posed by the deal and the purported racial bias of its critics, such pundits have frequently pointed out that DPW will not be in charge of port security or cargo inspection. For example, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote (subscription required) on February 24:
If there were a real security issue here, I'd join the critics. But the security argument is bogus and, I would add, borderline racist. Many U.S. ports are run today by foreign companies, but the U.S. Coast Guard still controls all aspects of port security, entry and exits; the U.S. Customs Service is still in charge of inspecting the containers; and U.S. longshoremen still handle the cargos.
The port operator simply oversees the coming and going of ships, making sure they are properly loaded and offloaded in the most cost-effective manner. As my colleague David E. Sanger reported: ''Among the many problems at American ports, said Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an expert on port security at the Council on Foreign Relations, 'who owns the management contract ranks near the very bottom.' ''
Absent from Friedman's column, however, was any mention of one of the "critics' " main complaints -- that the Bush administration's Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) opted not to conduct a 45-day investigation into "the security argument" and thus would not know "[i]f there were a real security issue here."
Indeed, rather than further investigating potential security implications as provided for by a U.S. law known as the Exon-Florio provision, CFIUS approved the deal after an initial 30-day review. A 1993 amendment to Exon-Florio mandates that the initial review be followed by a 45-day investigation if "the acquirer is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government" and the acquisition "could result in control of a person engaged in interstate commerce in the U.S. that could affect the national security of the U.S." Unlike the British company that currently manages the ports, DPW is, in fact, owned by a foreign government. As Media Matters for America has noted, members of Congress from both parties, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), have argued that the Bush administration violated the law by failing to conduct the additional 45-day investigation.
Moreover, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress -- recently criticized the "narrow definition" of national security used by CFIUS in determining whether to conduct a 45-day investigation. In a September 2005 report, the GAO noted that according to officials at the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, this definition excludes "vulnerabilities [that] can result from foreign control of critical infrastructure."
The GAO report further noted that the vast majority of cases reviewed by CFIUS are never reported to Congress, leaving Congress with little, if any, oversight of the confidential process. Schumer and King addressed this issue in a February 22 USA Today op-ed, in which they announced legislation that would require a 45-day investigation of the DPW deal followed by a report to Congress:
[W]e believe that turning over significant control of six of our largest ports to the Dubai company without proper investigation could be a recipe for disaster.
That is why we are introducing legislation that would temporarily halt the deal, initiate a thorough 45-day investigation of the firm and allow Congress to review the findings.
There are a number of serious questions that must be answered. The Dubai company is owned and operated by a country through which a number of the 9/11 hijackers traveled and al-Qaeda money was funneled. Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan used it as a crossroads for shipping nuclear technology and material to Iran.
Following the public outcry over the deal, DPW and the Bush administration did agree to a 45-day CFIUS investigation into the deal's national security implications. That, however, has not stopped pundits from concluding on their own that security concerns amount to nothing more than "demagoguery." In an appearance on the February 26 edition of Fox News Sunday, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol even insisted that those calling for the investigation were "idiots," who reached conclusions on the port deal "without knowing anything about it":
KRISTOL: On the other hand, the 45 days is to give cover to the idiots in Congress who jumped on this without knowing anything about it. It's not to give cover to the Bush administration. They're not going to change their mind. They're going to go ahead with the deal. And I do think the Democrats could be made to pay a price for their demagoguery. ... They need to go on the offensive and make the Democrats pay a price for their total demagoguery on this issue.
Such accusations of "demagoguery" coincide with overwhelming public concern about the deal -- concern that Friedman, Kristol, and others have apparently dismissed out of hand. King told reporters on February 21: "My office today has received more phone calls on this than any issue in the 14 years I've been in the United States Congress, and every one of them is in support of what Senator Schumer and I are doing." And a February 22-26 CBS News poll found that 70 percent of respondents believe the United States should not allow the DPW deal to go forward.
Similarly, a February 23-26 Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll found that 61 percent of respondents think "Congress should take special action to block the government's decision" while only 27 percent believe "[w]e should trust President Bush and his Administration in their decision."
But after discussing these polling results in an appearance on the February 28 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Cook Political Report editor and publisher Charlie Cook suggested that the DPW deal is "a great issue to demagogue." Without mentioning the lack of an investigation that critics say was mandated by law, Cook concluded that "whether the profits go to London or whether they go to Dubai, I don't think makes a whole lot of difference, " adding, "I think it's probably the right thing here."
From the February 28 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: Well, what do you think about the New Orleans port being under the control of the UAE?
COOK: The thing is, I think whether the profits go to London or whether they go to Dubai, I don't think makes a whole lot of difference. Who -- who operates --
MATTHEWS: The management doesn't bother you?
COOK: -- who operates it, who's actually doing the work, matters. But the thing is, it's kind of like the Panama Canal. You remember back in '78, we're handing over the Panama Canal to the -- to the Communists. It was a great issue to demagogue, great issue -- very easy and very hard to defend the policy, even though it turned out to be the right thing to do. I think it's probably the right thing here.
Other pundits from major media outlets have joined Friedman, Kristol, and Cook in dismissing concerns about the deal's security implications and often have accused the deal's critics of demagoguery or racial bias.
But let's be clear: the opposition to the acquisition by Dubai Ports World is completely bogus.
The deal would have no significant effect on port security. Regardless of who operates the ports, the Coast Guard still controls their physical security. The Customs Service still controls container security. The harbor patrols, the port authorities and the harbor police still do their jobs. Nearly every expert who actually knows something about port security says the ownership of the operating companies is the least of our concerns. ''This kind of reaction is totally illogical,'' Philip Damas, research director of Drewry Shipping Consultants, told The Times. ''The location of the headquarters of a company in the age of globalism is irrelevant.''
- Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist (who acknowledged the deal's "security implications" yet concluded that "they are manageable"), in his February 26 column (subscription required):
Port terminals have been managed, without alarm, by companies from Britain, China, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. So let's look at the arguments of those who believe we should discriminate against Arabs.
So you're claiming that there are no security implications about a company from Dubai running American port terminals?
Sure, there are ''implications,'' but they are manageable. And there are also implications about rejecting and scorning a modernizing ally like the United Arab Emirates -- that would be a gift to Qaeda propagandists.
Democrats have so many legitimate reasons to criticize President Bush -- from ruining our nation's finances to despoiling American wilderness -- that it's painful to see them scaremongering in just the way that Mr. Bush himself has.
- Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist, in his February 28 column:
Whatever their concerns may be, whatever their fears, they would not have had them, expressed them or seen them in print had the middle name of the United Arab Emirates been something else.
America has many friends in the Arab world. You can go to Saudi Arabia, for instance, and talk "American" at a dinner party -- banter about the Washington Redskins or California real estate prices or, of course, politics. The region is home to many people who have gone to school in the United States and admire it greatly. They are not the majority by any means, but they are important and influential -- and they are being slowly alienated by knee-jerk insults and brainless policies that reflect panic and prejudice. The true security cost of the Dubai deal has already been inflicted.
The furor over Dubai is misplaced on so many levels, but let's start with the supposed terrorist threat. Military and CIA officials will tell you privately that the United Arab Emirates is among the most effective intelligence partners the United States has today in the Arab world. Its operatives are risking their lives to help gather information about al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They don't advertise it, and when an operation goes bad -- such as the U-2 spy plane that crashed last June returning from Afghanistan to al-Dhafra air base -- they keep their mouths shut.
Certainly, al-Qaeda knows who the enemy is. Among the documents released last week by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point was a spring 2002 al-Qaeda warning to officials of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It accused the UAE leaders of working with the U.S. government "in order to appease the Americans' wishes which include: spying, persecution and detainments." Al-Qaeda claimed it has penetrated the UAE government, and the United States should certainly vet any UAE personnel working in the United States. But the idea that by purchasing the British company that has been managing six U.S. ports, Dubai Ports World is somehow opening the door to terrorism is, frankly, racist.
In response to the port decision, [CNN host Lou] Dobbs ran one of his typically less-than-scientific online polls: "Do you believe national security should play a role in the national security review process?" He knew this was like asking "Do you think prostate exams should screen for prostate cancer?" He just didn't care.
And that's the point: Few politicians -- or commentators -- seem to care about the facts.
So here are a few, in no particular order: The Dubai firm wouldn't be handling security -- the U.S. Coast Guard would continue to do that; unionized American longshoremen would still to do all of the loading and unloading; the ports in question were already foreign-owned, as are countless other ports in the United States; and if the U.S. had rejected the Dubai bid, a Singapore firm would probably have gotten the contract from the Brits instead.
Port security is a serious concern, but scapegoating Dubai is a distraction. And if we're going to argue about distractions, we might stick to the entertaining ones.
- Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal editorial board member, on the February 25 edition of Fox News' Journal Editorial Report (with Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot):
GIGOT: A Dubai-based maritime company has offered to postpone its plans to take over management of several U.S. ports while the Bush administration discusses the deal with Congress. Earlier this week, the president threatened what would be his first veto if members tried to block the agreement, which has provoked bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill. Joining [Journal editorial board member] Steve [Moore] on the panel, Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Jason Riley, and columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger. Jason, let's talk about the merits of this, first. Is there any reason to believe that turning over port management to this Dubai company would be a threat to national security?
RILEY: No. No. U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard and the Port Authorities run security at ports. And this deal would not change that in any way. To buy the criticisms of this deal, you have to believe that a president that's been caricatured as a sort of warmongering Texas yahoo super hawk, suddenly is going soft on national security. And there's nothing in the history of this administration to -- that would lead you to believe that. It's just preposterous.
- Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard executive editor and Fox News host, on the February 25 edition of Fox News' Beltway Boys:
BARNES: Well, he [President Bush] certainly needs to elaborate on that, and -- and then he, you know, he's talking about helping -- stopping the money from going to Al Qaeda now, and also helping in this container -- ship container security program. But he's suggesting, and -- and I think you and I will both agree, that there's an awful lot of mere loathing of Arabs that's behind this -- and behind this complaint. But there's something else that I think's worth mentioning, and that is, the eagerness and, I mean, more than just willingness, the eagerness of Republicans on Capitol Hill to all of a sudden jump out and revolt against the -- rebel against the president based on practically no knowledge. I mean, there's no security problem here. The security's run at these ports by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs. They're still going to be in charge of security.
- Morton M. Kondracke, Roll Call executive editor and Fox News host, on the February 23 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
KONDRACKE: Hillary Clinton, during a press conference after the Senate hearing, said that if there was a 45-day investigation, which she says is required under the law when a company owned by a foreign government is involved, should be instituted that she might relax her opposition to this whole thing -- might. So, and then the facts are coming out. Instead of this knee-jerk, anti-Arab reaction that Republicans and Democrats both indulged in, in the beginning, you now have the notion that the UAE is different from other Arab countrie, that it's an ally on the war on terrorism, that it's been servicing, you know, U.S. ships and so on, and that this was overdone.
HUME (host): Was it?
KONDRACKE: Oh, of course it was overdone. I mean, the initial reaction in Congress was the American equivalent of a cartoon riot in the Muslim world, practically. I mean, they just went bonkers in the beginning.
- Robert D. Novak, nationally syndicated columnist, on the February 23 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:
GIBSON (host): Well, the Republicans hadn't been informed about the deal, and, it turns out, neither had the president. This whole process, sort of -- is carried out in official secret status for awhile. But isn't it true that this gives the Democrats a chance to run to the right of Republicans on homeland security?
NOVAK: That's -- that's what they're trying to do, even though it's phony, because it's the same -- it's going to be the same people handling the operations that was under a British company and now it's under a United Arab Emirates company. So, it's an absolutely bogus story, but there is a -- in the sixth year of the Bush administration, there is a reclusiveness, a secrecy that is very self-damaging. It's amazing that this was so tightly held that they didn't see the possible warning signals ahead of time and smooth out the bumps with people like [Senate] Majority Leader [Bill] Frist [R-TN] and [House] Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert [R-IL]. It is -- it is just a case history of mishandling something. As far as security goes, the same U.S. officials will be in security in the ports as were -- as there was before, but the Democrats have tried to make ports and containers the niche for their security position against the Republicans for years, ever since 9-11.
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- National Security & Foreign Policy
- Fox News Channel, The Washington Post, MSNBC, The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times
- Mort Kondracke, Paul Gigot, Robert Novak, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Jonah Goldberg, David Brooks, Charlie Cook, David Ignatius, Richard Cohen, Nicholas D. Kristof
- Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News Sunday, Hardball, The Big Story with John Gibson, The Beltway Boys, Journal Editorial Report