Thursday, February 23, 2006

Protecting our ports, Bush-style.

Today, the big story is that our government has contracted out the management of East coast ports to a foreign government. The foreign government is, of course, the United Arab Emigrates, one of three countries in the world to recognize the Taliban, and the country where the payroll checks of the 9-11 murderers were cashed. It was also the main transshipment point for Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear engineer who ran the world's largest nuclear proliferation ring from warehouses near the port, met Iranian officials there, and shipped centrifuge equipment, which can be used to enrich uranium, from there to Libya.

If it comes as a surprise to you that the United States was contracting out the management of our ports, don’t worry. You are in good company. The President of the United States just found out about it few days ago, according to the White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan.

One thing that Dubya probably did not know is that there is a law covering this kind of deal. When “the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government” the law requires a “mandatory,” 45-day investigation. What’s more, according to the NY Times, “Administration officials … could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.”

The Times also reported:
The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.
This not only came as a surprise to Dubya, apparently it was unknown to the Secretary of Defense, who also was reportedly unaware of the deal.

Obviously a lot of people are unhappy about this. A Republican member of congress from North Carolina sent the president a letter, which said, in its entirety: “In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emigrates, not just NO – but HELL NO! Sincerely, Sue Myrick.”

For his part, the President has threatened to veto any legislation that would examine or delay the contract. Tom DeLay (R—TX) said that any such veto would be over-ridden. Why would the President threaten to veto any legislation that would examine or delay the contract? We’re talking about a president that has never issued a formal veto in 5 years of service.

I say ‘formal veto’ because he sometimes signs legislation with a ‘signing statement’ that says, in effect, “yeah, I am signing this, but that doesn’t mean I am going to obey it.” A notable example is the President’s signing statement issued when he signed anti-torture legislation, which I discussed in Bush to Congress: Drop Dead. We’ll come back to torture in a moment.

David Sorota, has a theory that this issue is extremely important to the President because his power base, large multi-national corporations, dreads the idea of national security being interjected into trade. As he puts it,
That's what this UAE deal is all about - the mixture of the right-wing's goal of privatizing all government services (even post 9/11 port security!) with the political Establishment's desire to make sure Tom-Friedman-style "free" trade orthodoxy supersedes everything. This is where the culture of corruption meets national security policy - and, more specifically, where the unbridled corruption of on-the-take politicians are weakening America's security.
I have a different theory on why this is so important. It all goes back to the Unitary Executive Theory. The president believes that the Congress has no role to play in such things as spying on Americans, prohibiting torture, and making trade decisions. I’ve mentioned the use of signing statements as an egregious example of King George W’s contumacious disdain for co-equal branches of government.

Last evening I encountered a very enlightening piece of evidence regarding this unitary executive theory.

In January of 2003, Alberto J. Mora wrote a “Memorandum for the Inspector General, Department of the Navy.” He was the General Counsel for the Department of the Navy, and his memo was a “Statement for the Record” regarding his involvement in interrogation issues.

Apparently, in December 2002, he received a report of detainee abuse in Guantanamo. He documented his efforts to remedy the situation, concluding that by January 15, 2003, the cruel and inhumane treatment had indeed stopped. Along the way, he came face to face with a December 2nd memo signed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The memo, in the view of Mr. Mora, “authorized interrogation techniques [that] could rise to the level of torture,” and surely rose to the level of cruel and inhumane practices which are unlawful. Rumsfeld signed it, and added a hand-written comment on the bottom of the memo regarding the four-hour limit on forced standing for detainees. Secretary Rumsfeld’s contribution: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

What happened next appears, from Mr. Mora’s memo, to be a successful campaign orchestrated by him, to have the December 2nd memorandum withdrawn and the objectionable practices stopped. However, this was not to be before the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, produced its own legal analysis of the interrogation program. Here’s what Mora had to say about that document:
[T] the memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s commander-in-chief authority. A key underpinning to the notion that cruel treatment could be applied to the detainees, the OLC formulation of the commander-in-chief authority was wrongly articulated because it failed to apply the Youngstown Steel test to the Guantanamo circumstances.
Now, all of this started to sound familiar, because that was the same objection to the same argument proposed by the administration in defense of the NSA spying on Americans: “An extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s commander-in-chief authority.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has indicated a belief that there is no legislative remedy to be had if Congress wants to limit the President’s power to wiretap Americans. And you will recall that the only other time that W threatened a veto was in relation to the McCain amendment to outlaw the treatments of detainees that his administration defended under this extreme view of executive power.

So, here’s my hunch. I think the only history that this President has of willingness to go to the mat is when there is a threatened limitation of his presidential prerogatives. The president could have gracefully said, “I wasn’t brought into this until after the deal was done, but now I see that the required review wasn’t done, and so, we will have to hold up the deal until we can comply with the law. I am confident that when all is said and done the American people will see that this deal is in the best interests of our country and that port security will be enhanced." Instead, his reaction shows that he regards congressional action in this arena to be a real threat.

Congressional oversight is to George W. Bush, what kryptonite is to Clark Kent. And the case of the contract with the UAE to run our ports is one where the president must make a stand. After all, the Dubai firm in question, DP World, has at least two ties to the White House.

One is Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose department heads the federal panel that signed off on the $6.8 billion sale of an English company to UAE-owned company - giving it control of Manhattan's cruise ship terminal and Newark's container port. Snow was chairman of the CSX rail firm that sold its own international port operations to DP World for $1.15 billion in 2004, the year after Snow left for Bush's cabinet.

The other connection is David Sanborn, who runs DP World's European and Latin American operations and who was tapped by King George last month to head the U.S. Maritime Administration.

It also seems so convoluted and hard to follow, but really it is quite simple. This president is all about claiming executive power, and cronyism, and helping big business.

And what about national security? As they say on the docks in N.Y. “Fuhgeddaboutit.”

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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