- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

A deal over ports is being hatched in Washington. The question is whether the deal and the uproar of the past week will persuade President Bush to make immediate and necessary maritime-security upgrades. Grandstanding there has been, but the concerns about this deal are justified. Proponents do themselves no favor, for starters, by suggesting that concerns about port security are motivated by racism. This is the cheapest of cheap shots.

The deal, as proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, is said to entail a 45-day security review of the U.S. parts of the Dubai Ports World deal, while the rest of the $6.8 billion transaction moves forward. Dubai Ports World has agreed to the review, and is said to have agreed to form an “independent” U.S. company to oversee its American operations. Previously, the Bush administration had resisted a new review because its first review, so it argued, was proper. With this new arrangement Congress would effectively overrule that judgment with its own.

Such a review is a step forward, but it does not solve everything. Unless the new 45-day review uncovers problems, such a deal leaves Congress and the newspapers and other media to ask the hard questions. Explaining the terms to Time magazine, Rep. Peter King, New York Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “if we are going to hold back on legislation, I think there has to be continuous congressional review throughout the new [committee on foreign investments] review.” The next six weeks will demonstrate whether this actually happens.

President Bush should explain why this deal is a step forward for port security, not a step backward, nor a deal that preserves the status quo. That’s the standard his critics, ourselves included, will hold him to. Concern over current porous port-security arrangements, and then the injection into the mix of an Arab company that could be infiltrated (or in a reasonable if unlikely hypothetical scenario even willfully cooperate in terrorism) is what prompted the firestorm.

A lot could be resolved if Dubai Ports World and the deal’s supporters in the government could prove that the deal meets the “passive ownership” standard we discussed on this page last week. “Passive ownership” means there is no operational involvement and no exposure to sensitive facilities, technology and information. It is the functional equivalent of shareholding. No one has proven yet that Dubai Ports World will be a passive owner. Dubai Ports World is a closely held company owned by the royal family in a part of the world notorious for hostility to the United States. Infiltration by evil-doers would not be difficult. There are questions about the company’s purposes: Are its 20 percent growth rates in a mature industry reflective solely of innovative management?

We take assertions that the UAE is a reliable American ally with justifiable caution. Steven Emerson, a distinguished analyst, notes that as recently as last year Hamas couriers were dispatched to the West Bank or Gaza with UAE cash.

Much could be done to allay the justifiable fears if overall cargo and port security were improved. Questions should be asked about the oversight process, in which deals are approved with less than unanimous approval. In the event that the sale stands there must be safeguards to ensure that an Arab firm from an Arab country previously aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan does not compromise port security — and the security of the United States.

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