Green light for port transaction raises red flags

February 22, 2006|By CAL THOMAS

ARLINGTON, VA. -- The Australian government recently issued the following alert to its citizens:

"We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in the United Arab Emirates because of the high threat of terrorist attack. We continue to receive reports that terrorists are planning attacks against Western interests in the United Arab Emirates. Commercial and public areas frequented by foreigners are possible terrorist targets."

The United States has approved a business deal that would turn over the operation of six major American ports to a company that is owned by the UAE, the very country Australians are to be wary of visiting. The obvious question is: If it is dangerous for an Australian to travel to the UAE because of terrorism, isn't it even more dangerous for a company owned by the UAE to own the rights to American ports where terror might be directly, or indirectly, imported?

There have been some dumb decisions since the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, including the "welcoming" of radical Muslim groups, mosques and schools that seek, by their preaching and teaching, to influence U.S. foreign policy and undermine the nation. But the decision to allow the sale of port operations in New York; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; Miami; Philadelphia; and New Orleans to a company owned by the UAE may be the dumbest of all.

Security experts have repeatedly said American ports are poorly protected. Each year, about 9 million cargo containers enter the United States through its ports. Repeated calls to improve port security have mostly gone unheeded.

In supporting the sale decision by a little-known interagency panel called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the Bush administration dismissed security risk concerns. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said the sale of the ports for $6.8 billion to Dubai Ports World was "rigorously reviewed" by CFIUS, which, he said, considers security threats when foreign companies seek to buy or invest in American industry. Apparently, money talked more than common sense.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, congressional Republicans and Democrats are forging an alliance to reverse the decision.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, has announced plans for her Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to hold hearings. Sens. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, and Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey - both members of Ms. Collins' committee - have raised concerns. New York's Democratic senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have also objected to the sale. Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, expect to offer a bill to ban companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from acquiring U.S. port operations.

In the House, Republican Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Mark Foley of Florida and Vito J. Fossella of New York are among those who want to know more about the sale. In a House speech, Mr. Foley said, "The potential threat to our country is not imagined; it is real."

The UAE was used as a financial and operational base by some of the 9/11 hijackers. A New York Times editorial said the sale takes the Bush administration's "laxness to a new level."

Members of Congress may wish to consider that the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components bound for Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. The UAE was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government before the U.S. invasion toppled it.

The Department of Homeland Security says it is legally impossible under CFIUS rules to reconsider approval of the sale without evidence the Dubai company gave false information or withheld vital details from U.S. officials. Congress should change that law.

Last year, Congress overwhelmingly recommended against the Bush administration granting permission to a Chinese company to purchase the U.S. oil services company UNOCAL. Six years ago, when a Chinese company took control of the Panama Canal from the United States, retired U.S. Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of a "nuclear Pearl Harbor."

Congress must stop this sale of American ports to foreign interests and, in an era of terrorism, prevent any more potential terrorist targets from falling into the hands of those who wish to destroy us.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is cal@calthomas.com.

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