Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Perhaps I Spoke Too Soon...

I should know by now that even a little benefit of the doubt for the Bush administration is too much. Yesterday I wrote that the Dubai Ports World deal may not be quite the danger to the United States that many are saying it is. Well, now it appears that the probability of my being dead wrong is rapidly approaching 1.

From Markos:

You see, while we're supposed to invade countries without cause, torture prisoners, surrender civil liberties, get spied on by our government -- all in the name of "national security", pesky things such as "national security" shouldn't get in the way of commerce. Especially with some of Bush's best Middle Eastern pals who are also big Osama Bin Laden pals. (Is that one or two degrees of separation?)

Yet a real counter-terrorism expert under this administration gives reasons why the deal is a bad, bad thing [via the Washington Post]:

"Joseph King, who headed the customs agency's anti-terrorism efforts under the Treasury Department and the new Department of Homeland Security, said national security fears are well grounded.

He said a company the size of Dubai Ports World would be able to get hundreds of visas to relocate managers and other employees to the United States. Using appeals to Muslim solidarity or threats of violence, al-Qaeda operatives could force low-level managers to provide some of those visas to al-Qaeda sympathizers, said King, who for years tracked similar efforts by organized crime to infiltrate ports in New York and New Jersey. Those sympathizers could obtain legitimate driver's licenses, work permits and mortgages that could then be used by terrorist operatives.

Dubai Ports World could also offer a simple conduit for wire transfers to terrorist operatives in the Middle East. Large wire transfers from individuals would quickly attract federal scrutiny, but such transfers, buried in the dozens of wire transfers a day from Dubai Ports World's operations in the United States to the Middle East would go undetected, King said."

This actually speaks to something that has been tickling at the back of my mind about this deal, even as I was writing what I did yesterday. Even if, as I suggested, the overarching concerns of international commerce tend to ameliorate the danger from the UAE's government policies, the problem remains of mid-level functionaries. In spite of what scandals such as WorldCom and Enron have shown in recent years, most types of corporate fraud and fiscal mismanagement occur at the middle levels. I think this is where the true danger may lie in this deal.

Bill Maher hinted at this on Real Time Friday night and I echo his concern: it only takes one middle manager or corporate functionary getting "flipped" by Al-Qaida to seriously open a hole in our already very limited port security. It only takes one bomb or one chemical scare to tremendously raise the level of terrorism fear in the United States; a fear that the Bush administration has exploited with brutal effectiveness to further its agenda. All the gentlemens' agreements in the world between wealthy government leaders don't do much to protect us from the one (or more) dissatisfied DP World employee, sympathetic to Al-Qaida's message, who can be persuaded or bribed to just look the other way. To paraphrase the President, which is a must in order to understand him: they only have to beat our security once.

The question remains, then, of what to do next? Assuming the White House would even consider blocking this sale (which it won't) or assuming Congress moves to block it legislatively (unlikely as well; Republicans don't step out of rank often or for long), then what happens? Do we shut down the port operations that DP World would have overseen? The U.S. has no port operations companies any longer. Even if we did, there is nothing to prevent the same type of buy-out deal from occurring to a U.S. company either. We don't do state owned businesses (usually). So, do we void the contract and seek a different bidder, perhaps China again? Is that even a better option? Closing down the port operations will have very expensive and wide-ranging repercussions to our economy, as the U.S. is the world's biggest importer of just about everything under the sun. Perhaps a Congressionally-mandated ports management company, similar to the old National Housing Partnership for residential housing management? In practical terms, that amounts to creating a new, entirely socialized national industry, something I doubt any Republican would ever support.

I honestly don't know what the answer is on this problem, though it's probably moot. The 45-day review period seems to be a sham designed to cool the political uproar around this deal, which, for the record, I don't think will work. Bush has sunk the hook of irrational fear too deeply into his supporters to not reel them in again and Bush's opponents smell blood in the water on this issue. What a mess...

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