This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
A nefarious multinational corporation secretly controlled by a hostile Arab government has engineered a covert takeover of six major U.S. ports. America is at risk of losing control of its borders and compromising national security in an entirely preventable way.
Never have I seen a bogus story explode so fast and so far. I thought I was a connoisseur of demagoguery and cheap shots, but the Dubai Ports World saga proves me a piker. With a stunning kinship of cravenness, politicians of all flavors risk trampling each other as they rush to the cameras and microphones to condemn the handover of massive U.S. strategic assets to an Islamic, Arab terrorist-loving enemy.
The only problem -- and I admit it's only a teeny-weeny problem -- is that 90 percent ofis false.
The United Arab Emirates is not an Axis of Evil kind of place, it will not own U.S. ports, it will not control security at U.S. ports and there is nothing new about foreigners owning U.S. ports. Odds are higher that you'll be wounded interfering with a congressman providing soundbites than by something smuggled into a port terminal leased by Dubai Ports World.
But please: let's not let the facts get in the way of a good story. And what's wrong with a little Arab-bashing anyway?
I am no expert on ports, transportation or shipping. But it takes very little reading and research to cut through the gas on this one.
Myth #1: An Arab company is trying to buy six American ports.
No, the company is buying up a British company that leases terminals in American ports; the ports are U.S.-owned. To lease a terminal at a U.S. port means running some business operations there -- contracting with shipping lines, loading and unloading cargo and hiring local labor. Dubai Ports World is not buying the ports.
Several companies will lease terminals at a single port. In New Orleans, for example, the company Dubai Ports World is trying to buy (P&O Ports) is just one of eight companies that lease and operate terminals.
P&O Ports does business in 18 other countries. None of them are in righteous lathers about the sale of the business to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. Dubai Ports World already operates port facilities all over the world, including such security-slacker states as China, Australia, Korea and Germany.
Myth #2: The U.S. is turning over security at crucial ports to an Arab company.
No, security at U.S. ports is controlled by U.S. federal agencies led by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Control Agency, which are part of the Homeland Security department. Local jurisdictions also provide police and security personnel.
Complaints about security at ports should be directed to the federal government.
Myth #3: American ports should be American.
Well, it's too late, baby. According to James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation (a place really known for its Arab-loving, soft-on-terror approach), "Foreign companies already own most of the maritime infrastructure that sustains American trade…" Thirty per cent of the countries port terminals are operated by companies that are, um, unAmerican.
At the port of Los Angeles, 80 per cent of the terminals are operated by foreign companies. Chinese companies operate more than half the terminals. So why is this suddenly a threat? After all, political outcry managed to scupper the deal a few months ago in which a Chinese company was going to take over the Unocal oil company.
Remember the global economy? Internationally, 24 of the 25 largest companies that operate port terminals aren't American. That means just about every container that enters a U.S. port has come from a foreign-controlled facility.
Go to any port in the country and you'll be lucky to see a single giant vessel with U.S.A. on its stern. Foreign-owned airplanes fly into American airports every hour. Many U.S. companies have foreign entities among their largest shareholders.
My colleague Charlie Wolfson reports that State Department sources say Dubai Ports World already handles port calls for U.S. Navy ships from the 5th fleet for their regular port calls in the United Arab Emirates -- a pretty high measure of trustworthiness.
Myth #4: The United Arab Emirates has "very serious" al Qaeda connections.
That's what Republican Rep. Peter King says. It's also what the administration said of pre-war Iraq, but that didn't mean it was true. I suppose you could say each and every Arab and Islamic country has al Qaeda issues, but even on that yardstick the UAE is a pretty good player and by most accounts, getting better.
Politicians have been quick to point out that two of the 9/11 hijackers were from UAE. And we're turning over our ports to them? Well, by that logic, we shouldn't let Lufthansa land in our airports or have military bases in Germany, because that country housed a bunch of the 9/11 hijackers as they were plotting.
Yes, Dubai has plenty of blood in its hands, especially as a source or courier for terror funds. To my knowledge its crimes were not government sponsored. It is not a rogue state. It has been among the closer and more cooperative Arab allies for the past two years (another conspiracy theory: Bush is paying them off at the expense of our safety).
Some combination of these facts led the Dubai Ports deal to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a joint effort of a dozen government agencies tasked with security (yes, I know, that's slim solace).
Certainly the security of American ports is an important issue. Certainly who controls the finances of companies that lease terminals at ports is far down the to-do list of how to improve security at ports.
That has everything to do with adequate funding and proper management at the relevant agencies. Management is the responsibility of the executive branch, while funding and oversight is the job of Congress. There is scant evidence that Congress or the administration have excelled in their duties.
That's why it's so tempting for politicians of both parties to indulge in xenophobic Arab-bashing on this matter of minimal national security importance. There are scads of real homeland security issues and glaring national security problems coming out of Arab or Muslim states; this is not in either category, not even close. But as one Republican said, regardless of the facts, the administration was politically "tone deaf" on this one. Appearance is more important than reality.
Often bipartisanship is a sign of pragmatic consensus or noble common cause. In this case it is merely a demonstration of an occupational hazard of politicians: cover-your-arse-itis.
Dick Meyer, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com.
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By Dick Meyer