- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Bush administration’s answer to questions about “intelligence gaps” in the ports deal is as thin as a sheet of paper. Literally: The Bush administration pointed this week to an “assurance letter” from Dubai Ports World to try to clear up confusion over whether security concerns about the ports deal were adequately addressed.

This week, Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, released an unclassified excerpt of a Coast Guard memorandum revealing that the Coast Guard saw significant gaps in knowledge about Dubai Ports World. The company’s operational and personnel matters, plus the possibility of foreign influence, were too scantily known to make a real judgment, the agency said back in December. The Coast Guard somewhat suspiciously changed its position this week. In Mrs. Collins’ hearings on the matter, one key question was: Why did the Coast Guard change its mind?

According to both Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker, a “letter of assurance” from the United Arab Emirates firm was the reason. This letter would provide information on personnel, operations and foreign influence as the U.S. government requests it, they said — and this was enough to satisfy the Coast Guard.

It turns out the letter in question doesn’t even address the Coast Guard’s concerns. It contains bland reassurances and mentions of previously disclosed participation in U.S. government security programs. Said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and Homeland Security Committee chairman, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Tuesday: “[A] careful review of the ‘assurances letter’ reveals that DP World is not, in fact, bound to provide the U.S. government with the information it would need to close the intelligence gaps the Coast Guard identified…The language is weak… Indeed, the assurances appear to amount to little more than a restatement of what the FBI or other law enforcement agenc[ies] could gather anyway in the course of an investigation.”

If the Coast Guard took this company’s promises of “reasonable steps” — that’s the letter’s wording — to help U.S. authorities find the information they need, then the review under the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States was even more perfunctory than we thought.

Clearly there must be more going on here in classified channels. The U.S. government couldn’t be relying on a letter of promises. Could it? Why, then, are Bush administration officials trying this line with Congress?

Equally odd is the fact that the Bush administration could have avoided much of the ire simply by admitting that — through no fault of its own — the CFIUS review process is deeply flawed owing to problems with the law’s drafting in 1988. As former House Judiciary Committee chief counsel Jerry Zeifman details today on the opposite page, the Exon-Florio law that created CFIUS is specifically designed to expedite these transactions. More than this, career professionals have acted in ways that insulate high-ranking political appointees from much of the vetting process in an attempt to ensure a review process free of interference and conflicts of interest. So there’s a reason President Bush and his advisers didn’t know about this deal until very recently: The process bars them from participating actively.

We can chalk much of this up to the Bush administration’s inadequate public-relations strategy — but not nearly enough of it, in this troubling case.

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