- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Coast Guard went from appearing to question the Dubai ports deal to enthusiastically supporting it, all in the course of 12 hours in Washington this week, as senators questioned the Bush administration decision to let the United Arab Emirates run major U.S. sea terminals.

The Coast Guard’s seeming flip-flop has raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill, where the sea and air service carries much weight. It alone among federal agencies won unanimous congressional praise for its relief efforts in Katrina-flooded New Orleans.

To clear up its position, the Coast Guard issued a new statement yesterday from its No. 2 officer, a day after the disclosure of an internal Coast Guard memo that stated “many intelligence gaps” existed in the proposed sale of terminal-operating rights to DP World (DPW).

“The Coast Guard continues to believe that DP World’s acquisition … in and of itself does not pose a significant threat to U.S. assets,” Vice Adm. Terry Cross, the vice commandant, said yesterday. The Coast Guard, as an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has responsibility for enforcing counterterrorism measures at all major U.S. shipping ports.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, released the internal Coast Guard assessment at a Senate hearing Monday. “Intelligence gaps” meant to most senators on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) did not do a thorough review before approving the sale on Jan. 17.

What made the report even more disturbing, senators said, was the acknowledgement by the Department of Homeland Security, which sits on CFIUS and is in charge of port security, that it never saw the “gaps” memo before voting to approve the sale. DPW has since asked for a new 45-day investigation.

“I’m really trying to get to the process here of, if there is an assessment, why given the Coast Guard is a key agency within the Department of Homeland Security, why you as the representative to the committee did not have access to that,” Sen. Collins said to Stewart Baker, assistant homeland security secretary for policy.

“I think that report was internal to the Coast Guard,” said Mr. Baker. He argued it did not matter that he did not see the memo because the Coast Guard ultimately OK’d DPW.

But behind the scenes, the Coast Guard was scrambling to present a fuller public record than the relatively few words read by Miss Collins, a prominent Bush critic on homeland security issues.

The Coast Guard’s representative at the hearing, Rear Adm. Thomas H. Gilmour, assistant commandant for prevention, refused to further enlighten the committee in open session.

After the committee scurried across the Capitol grounds to a secure room for a classified briefing, senators emerged saying they had more questions than answers.

“We asked them a lot of questions that they agreed that they would now look into as part of this new 45-day review,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. “They made a mistake in not doing so. They subjected their decision to a lot of understandable criticism and anger. It’s time to do what they should have done the first time around and to do it fairly.”

The UAE, an ally in the war on terrorism that plays host to American warplanes and ships, was one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban regime. Some of the UAE’s emirs visited Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to the September 11 commission report.

As reports of the “gaps” memo surfaced, Coast Guard headquarters in Washington moved to dampen the story. It began the process of extracting from its multipage classified assessment of DPW one unclassified paragraph that stated its endorsement.

“It took all evening to get all that vetted by intelligence to get it out there,” Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman, said yesterday. “We felt the need to put in context information that had previously been released.”

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