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The Underlying Problems

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 24, 2006; 11:27 AM

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.

Port Security

Paul Blustein and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Among all the reasons to fret about vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, the nationality of the companies managing the terminals is one of the least worrisome. . . .

"Administration officials have asserted in recent days that security at U.S. ports is the responsibility of the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with the terminal operators responsible for little more than transferring containers from ships to railroad cars and trucks.

"That overstates the role government agencies play. 'They've been saying that customs and the Coast Guard are in charge of security; yes, they're in charge, but they're not usually present,' said Carl Bentzel, a former congressional aide who helped write the 2002 act regulating port security. . . .

"In some cases, the companies X-ray incoming containers to see whether the contents appear to match the manifest, although customs agents are solely responsible for 'intrusive' inspections -- that is, opening containers and examining the cargo. That procedure is performed on about 5 percent of containers entering the United States."

The Trade Deficit

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The real absurdity here is that Congress doesn't seem to realize that an Arab-owned company's management of America's ports is just a taste of what is coming. Greater foreign ownership of U.S. assets is an inevitable consequence of the reckless tax-cutting, deficit-ballooning fiscal policies that Congress and the White House have pursued. By encouraging the United States to consume more than it produces, these fiscal policies have sucked in imports so fast that the nation is nearing a trillion-dollar annual trade deficit. Those are IOUs on America's future, issued by a spendthrift Congress."

Congress and the Mushroom Treatment

The New York Times editorial board writes: "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."

Executive Secrecy

E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Most Americans had no idea that our government's process of approving foreign takeovers of American companies through the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States was entirely secret. When Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the Dubai Ports deal at a hearing on Feb. 15, Chertoff declined to answer because the committee's work was 'classified.' Treasury Secretary John Snow told another congressional committee that he was not permitted to discuss specific transactions considered by the foreign investment panel.

"Why shouldn't the public have a right to know about the deliberations of this interagency committee? Hasn't the secrecy surrounding this decision aggravated the uproar it has caused?"

Dionne concludes that "a process carried out in such secrecy and with so little accountability deserves to be the subject of controversy."

Bigotry Against Islam

Mansoor Ijaz writes for the National Review: "Islamophobia, not national security, is at the heart of the raging controversy on Capitol Hill over a United Arab Emirates-based company, Dubai Ports World, assuming ownership and management responsibilities at six major seaports in the United States."

He writes that the "fiery rhetoric and threats of congressional action mask an increasingly patronizing racism fueled by illogical paranoia rooted in past events."

Out of the Loop

Patricia Wilson writes for Reuters: "What didn't the president know and when didn't he know it?

"Faced with a rebellion in his own Republican party over an Arab company's planned takeover of operations at six U.S. ports, the White House says President George W. Bush was in the dark about it until last week."

Wilson sees this as just the latest example of Bush's "I-did-not-know strategy."

For instance: "Bush responded to accusations of a botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina by arguing that no one could have anticipated that New Orleans' levees would fail. He also said, in response to accusations over intelligence failures before the September 11 attacks, that he had no idea U.S. enemies would use 'airplanes to kill.'

"Bush did not hear personally from Vice President Dick Cheney until about 36 hours after Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner in Texas."

The list goes on.

The Politics of Hysteria

Williams Greider writes for the Nation: "A conservative blaming hysteria is hysterical, when you think about it, and a bit late. Hysteria launched Bush's invasion of Iraq. It created that monstrosity called Homeland Security and pumped up defense spending by more than 40 percent. Hysteria has been used to realign US foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the 'long war' now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld. It has also slaughtered a number of Democrats who were not sufficiently hysterical. It saved George Bush's butt in 2004.

"Bush was the principal author, along with his straight-shooting Vice President, and now he is hoisted by his own fear-mongering propaganda. The basic hysteria was invented from risks of terrorism, enlarged ridiculously by the President's open-ended claim that we are endangered everywhere and anywhere (he decides where). Anyone who resists that proposition is a coward or, worse, a subversive."

Rove Speaks, Dubai Yields

Jonathan Weisman writes in 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. . . .

"The imbroglio over the port decision has tarnished the administration's image of political strength on national security matters and called into question why Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials failed to consult with the president and members of Congress before approving the sensitive transaction.

"With the White House saying the president did not learn about the sale until last weekend -- when lawmakers began complaining about it -- Bush has signaled that opposition to the port purchase smacks of anti-Arab bias that is undermining Washington's efforts to improve relations in the Middle East. To critics, the White House has put its free-trade economic agenda above concerns that go to the heart of fears in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world: that underprotected ports could be the scene of a deadly terrorist strike, possibly with nuclear weapons."

Rove sent his very public hint yesterday morning. Here's the transcript of Rove's appearance on Fox News Radio's "The Tony Snow Show."

"SNOW: Some members of Congress say they want longer to study this. Dubai Ports World seems to be not averse to that. Would the president accept a slight delay in implementing the takeover by Dubai Ports World of P&O, which was the previous operator of these terminals?

"ROVE: Yes, look, 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. 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. . . .

"What is important is that members of Congress have the time to get fully briefed on this. They're going to be coming back next week. We intend to work closely with them in order to give them a comfort level on this."

And while the majority of the Republican party -- and even right-wing talk radio -- may have abandoned Bush on this issue, you can apparently count on Tony Snow to remain a Bush apologist to the end.

On the terrible misunderstanding at the root of the problem:

"SNOW: Is it safe to say, then, that a lot of members who are speaking with a sense of authority actually don't know all the facts?

"ROVE: Well, look, I talked to some members in the last several days, and they have an interest in finding out more about it. But, yes, most members are just picking up and reading something in the newspaper, hearing something on talk radio."

And on Bush being out of the loop:

"SNOW: It's not like somebody comes in and shakes the president awake every time somebody has a sale that involves a foreign company.

"ROVE: Right.

"SNOW: If so, he'd never get any sleep and he'd never get any work done.

"ROVE: Exactly. Exactly."

Katrina Redux

The White House yesterday came out with its own assessment of what went wrong after Hurricane Katrina, and it faults the system, not the leadership.

Blaming the system is under any circumstance a bit of a cop-out for an administration, but in this case particularly so given that this administration created the system.

As Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "If adopted through both legislation and executive order, the recommendations would reverse some of the steps taken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to centralize responsibility for responding to natural disasters or terrorist attacks at the newly created Department of Homeland Security."

Report author Frances Fragos Townsend telegraphed her findings earlier this month when she flatly stated: "I reject outright any suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved."

Here is the report and a White House " fact sheet."

In her press briefing on the report, Townsend did make this acknowledgement: "Finally, we need a better structure at the White House to ensure that all aspects of the response are moving forward, a process to cut through the red tape and to referee any needless disputes that arise in the heat of an emergency. Under the auspices of the Homeland Security Council, we will form the Disaster Response Group, which I will personally oversee. The Disaster Response Group will be very much modeled along the same type of a group that we have that deals with terrorism threats and responses in the Counter-Terrorism Security Group."

Christopher Lee and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "The White House proposed a major restructuring of federal preparedness and response efforts for catastrophic natural disasters yesterday, saying the government's failures in coping with Hurricane Katrina had laid bare the inadequacy of steps taken since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. . . .

"The White House document lays no blame on any individual, and no resignations followed its release."

By contrast, a recent " House report, written by Republicans after Democrats boycotted the panel, was much more critical of failures at the top. It said leaders from President Bush on down disregarded ample warning of the threat Katrina posed to New Orleans and did not execute emergency plans or share information that could have saved lives."

Seth Borenstein writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The White House acknowledged Thursday that the response to Hurricane Katrina was botched because federal officials were confused, poorly prepared and communicated badly. But instead of an overhaul of the Homeland Security bureaucracy, officials proposed 125 smaller fixes.

"The 11 most urgent recommendations, which the White House said are needed before the hurricane season starts this year, had been routine practices by the Federal Emergency Management Agency before it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, two former FEMA directors said Thursday."

Townsend criticized the National Response Plan, which she described as having "enough government acronyms and jargon to make your head spin."

Blogger W. David Stephenson finds a little jargon in Townsend's report too, here and there. One example, from her recommendations: "Although the NRP base plan was predicated on the NIMS incident command system, the Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) were taken from the old Federal Response Plan and were not adequately realigned to fit within the NIMS structure. The ESFs should be realigned to fit within the NIMS structure to ensure coordination and efficiency."

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Attorneys for Vice President Cheney's former top aide argued yesterday that a federal court should dismiss all charges against him because a special prosecutor lacked the legal authority to bring the charges.

"Lawyers for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby argued that Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald was improperly appointed by the Justice Department instead of the president to investigate the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. That means his work and the charges of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice brought against Libby in October are invalid, they said in court papers filed yesterday."

Here is Libby's motion to dismiss.

Who's Leaking Who?

David Morgan writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush's disclosure of detailed intelligence about a thwarted al Qaeda plot to attack Los Angeles could prove damaging for U.S. national security, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee said in a letter released on Thursday.

"In a Feb. 17 letter to U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte, Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia echoed a warning from CIA Director Porter Goss that revelations about intelligence successes or failures against al Qaeda can aid America's militant enemies. . . .

"Rockefeller said Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials have disclosed sensitive information for political purposes on a range of issues from prewar Iraq to National Security Agency eavesdropping.

"The disclosures have all been potentially damaging to U.S. interests, Rockefeller said. At the same time, the administration has sought to blame lower-level officials for damage caused by unauthorized leaks."

Here is Rockefeller's letter.

Murray Waas asks in his blog: "Did the Bush administration 'authorize' the leak of classified information to Bob Woodward? And did those leaks damage national security?"

Cheney Watch

Suzanne Goldenberg writes in the Guardian: "Vice-President Dick Cheney faced fresh questions yesterday about the shooting of his hunting companion on a Texas ranch, with the release of conflicting witness statements about whether alcohol had been consumed.

"The statements released by the local sheriff's office broadly confirm the circumstances under which Mr Cheney, wheeling about to shoot a covey of quail on February 11, sprayed Texas lawyer Harry Whittington with birdshot, wounding him in the face, chest and torso."

India Watch

Bush held a roundtable interview with Indian journalists on Wednesday. The transcript was released today.

Reuters reports: "U.S. President George W. Bush has said he hopes to clinch an agreement with India on a landmark nuclear energy cooperation deal during his visit to New Delhi next week and get Congress to approve it on his return.

"Bush's comments, made in an interview to an Indian newspaper and published on Friday, came amid talks between the two sides to bridge differences over New Delhi's plan to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs to prevent proliferation."

Chidanand Rajghatta writes for the Times of India about how he succumbed to Bush's charms.

"At the best of times, meeting the most powerful man on the planet can be intimidating. But when he walks into the Roosevelt Room of the White House quite unexpectedly a few minutes ahead of the scheduled interview time holding in his hands a book you have written, and quips, 'I've been reading a good book lately!' the most composed journalist can be knocked galley west. You could have felled me with a noodle. I barely managed a 'Thank you, Mr President' as he put the book in from of him and settled into his chair."

That book, presumably, is the out of print The Horse That Flew - How India's Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings.

Neil Bush Watch

What's a scandal without a presidential brother?

Blogger Debbie Schlussel writes: "Neil Bush is a frequent visitor to and paid speaker in Dubai, showing up there right after 9/11 trying to get investors for his failed Ignite! educational software company. . . . Bush was in Dubai so much that he e-mailed his wife of his desire for a divorce from his Dubai hotel room. . . .

"I'm not saying the President's brother had anything to do with this absurd deal. He probably did not. But we don't know for sure, and even the appearance of impropriety is unacceptable in the War on Terror. Certainly, this is a huge conflict of interest. Does President Bush really want to give Michael Moore the grounds to make 'Fahrenheit Ports 911'?"

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