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Published: Thursday, 2/23/2006

A storm in any port

VICE President Cheney's quail-hunting misadventures cast the Bush Administration as the gang that can't shoot straight. So, what do you say about a secretive group of high-level administration officials who decide to hand over port operations in six major U.S. cities to a company controlled by a Persian Gulf state with a shaky record on terrorism?

While the port deal can still be scuttled, the folks running the White House surely qualify as the gang that can't think straight. This is such poor political judgment that it mimics stupidity, and it shouldn't be dismissed, as President Bush did, as business as usual.

Lest anyone cry partisanship, we leave it to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, to characterize the administration's latest blunder:

"It's unbelievably tone-deaf politically at this point in our history, four years after 9/11, to entertain the idea of turning port security over to a company based in the United Arab Emirates, [which] vows to destroy Israel."

In short, it's not that the company is a foreign one - foreign concerns already manage many U.S. ports, and security is handled by, among many agencies, the Coast Guard - it's that the company is controlled by a foreign government whose interests often collide with those of the U.S.

Moreover, the UAE is an Arab state that, while an ally now, has a history of countenancing questionable activity, including the trafficking of nuclear technology from Pakistan.

In addition, most security experts say poor port security is this nation's post-9/11 Achilles' Heel. Security measures are in place, but not everything that arrives by ship - especially containers - can be thoroughly inspected.

The ports involved include many of the nation's largest shipping facilities: New York City, Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans. Through these ports flow a big chunk of the nation's commerce, which could be crippled in the event of a terrorist strike.

The $6.8 billion deal, due to take effect March 2, gives administrative control of the ports to Dubai Ports World, which acquired the company that now does the work from a British firm. DP World is controlled by the UAE government, which did not become a U.S. ally against terrorism until after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE nationals, and it was among only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The deal was approved by the little-known, 11-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which is supposed to review the national security implications of foreign acquisitions.

Critics say the deal was pushed through with only superficial scrutiny and, even if that's not the case, it most certainly did not pass the smell test and straight face examination that should have been conducted by a thoughtful, responsible administration official - if such an individual exists.

It is now up to the administration to undertake the thorough investigation of the port contract that should have been done already and, if warranted, cancel this potentially dangerous deal.

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