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Port deal demagoguery
USA Today
February 22, 2006

Nothing gets adrenaline coursing quite as quickly as a good scare story. All the more so if terrorism is part of the plot. That's the genre du jour in Hollywood, and now apparently in Washington, too.

How else to explain the frenzy over the Bush administration's decision to let a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates operate shipping terminals at six major U.S. ports? Politicians from New York to Miami are stampeding to the cameras to denounce the deal and to the courts to undo it.

The hysteria is bipartisan. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., warned that the deal would outsource port control to a "country with long involvement in terrorism." Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wondered how the company would guard against "infiltration by al-Qaeda." Congressional leaders and several governors piled on, seeking to block the deal, which President Bush vehemently defended.

Never mind that the deal was announced 13 days ago and had been rumored for months. Never mind that Congress could have reviewed it at any time. Never mind that revoking it could have significant ramifications in the Arab world. And never mind that a little patience might have allowed time to get the facts straight.

Using the terrorist boogeyman to attract cameras has more political appeal.

The facts are pretty simple. Dubai Ports World, an international shipping company controlled by the UAE, an oil-rich Persian Gulf state and one of America's few allies in the Middle East, purchased a British shipping company and with it contracts to manage a small number of the terminals at major ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami.

Many foreign companies, including ones from Singapore and China, operate U.S. shipping terminals. Even so, government agencies — not the companies — remain in charge of inspecting cargo and ships. The dock workers are generally unionized longshoremen. And no one is farming out security to an Arab nation. In fact, many of the Dubai firm's top executives are American, and the firm has worked with the USA at other ports.

Think of it this way: Airlines, including foreign ones, lease gates and even whole concourses at major airports. Saudi Arabian Airlines and Emirates — yes, an airline based in Dubai — pay to use available gates at New York's John F. Kennedy. And always, the federal and local authorities handle security. It works just about the same way in ports.

Of course, thinking of the Dubai deal logically wouldn't allow lawmakers to score political points with hysterical predictions.

The uproar in Congress does raise one useful question: What is the government doing to secure ports? The major threat is that a terrorist could smuggle a radioactive "dirty bomb," nuclear device or another weapon of mass destruction in one of millions of cargo containers that land on U.S. docks each year. If lawmakers want to prevent that, here are a few real concerns they've been ignoring:

• Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has issued more than a dozen reports since 9/11 revealing huge gaps in just about every shipping security program the government runs.

• A program to inspect high-risk, U.S.-bound containers at foreign ports misses many of its targets; others get inspected but not very effectively, the GAO found.

• An effort to issue federal identification cards to more than 5 million transportation workers has barely started. The Transportation Security Administration has issued just 4,000 "prototype" cards so far.

• Radiation sensors deployed in some foreign ports are not "capable of detecting a nuclear weapon or a lightly-shielded dirty bomb," according to security expert Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yes, Congress is welcome to take a hard look, unvarnished by political gamesmanship, at the involvement of Dubai Ports World in a sensitive industry. But it could do far more for security by working to fix the broad vulnerabilities in shipping.

Both tasks would be easier if lawmakers got down to business, instead of tripping over each other on the way to the cameras.

Bush (and USA Today) have been the biggest source of false information about threats to our national security. They're hardly in a position to oppose anyone who's doing what they (and Bush) have been doing for years. Bush used "fear" to take us to war for no reason, bankrupt our treasury, decimate the constitution and break our laws. Where was USA Today when all these well documented crimes and impeachable offenses took place - asleep.

At the core of the debate isn't terrorism - though terrorism sells these day, it's the laws that were broken. Defend that USA Today.