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Lesson on the Perils of Secrecy

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, February 24, 2006

Americans owe a debt to Dubai Ports World for the storm the company has created with its pending takeover of operations at six U.S. seaports. Let us count the hypocrisies and the inconsistencies, the blind spots and the oversights that this controversy has revealed.

Until this fight broke out about a week ago, it was impossible to get anyone but the experts to pay attention to the huge holes in the security of our ports. Suddenly, everyone cares.

Most Americans had no idea that our government's process of approving foreign takeovers of American companies through the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States was entirely secret. When Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the Dubai Ports deal at a hearing on Feb. 15, Chertoff declined to answer because the committee's work was "classified." Treasury Secretary John Snow told another congressional committee that he was not permitted to discuss specific transactions considered by the foreign investment panel.

Why shouldn't the public have a right to know about the deliberations of this interagency committee? Hasn't the secrecy surrounding this decision aggravated the uproar it has caused?

Republicans and conservatives would be aghast at the idea of our government owning a company that operated so many of our ports. That would be -- just imagine! -- socialism. But Dubai Ports World is, well, a socialist operation, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates. Why is it bad for the federal government to own our port operations, but okay for a foreign government?

And how many of us knew before this week that foreign companies -- from China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Denmark -- were major operators in 15 American ports? This may be just fine the way the world works these days. But we've never really talked about it, have we?

President Bush was his tough, swaggering self on Tuesday when he threatened to veto any bill that would scuttle the port company takeover. "They ought to look at the facts and understand the consequences of what they're going to do," Bush said.

But 24 hours later, as opposition to the deal built, White House spokesman Scott McClellan -- boy, I don't envy him his job these days -- said a president whose main calling card is his devotion to keeping our nation secure hadn't paid any attention to this issue until the past "several days." In other words, a subject Bush displayed such passion about the day before was also a subject he had just learned about. Does this happen often?

It was helpful to see an administration that often treats Congress as a mere nuisance finally concede that Bush should have taken legislators more seriously. "We probably should have briefed members of Congress sooner, " McClellan said. That McClellan was forced to speak those words is something of a miracle.

Are some opponents of this deal motivated by xenophobia? Of course, and xenophobia is both wrong and dangerous. But it's also wrong to dismiss every Democrat and every Republican who has raised questions about this deal -- i.e., most members of both parties -- as either a bigot or an opportunist.

On the contrary, a process carried out in such secrecy and with so little accountability deserves to be the subject of controversy. It is not irrational for legislators and governors to ask questions about what this deal means to security at six of our most important ports. What's irrational is that the administration failed to anticipate how many questions this deal would provoke.

What needs to happen now is obvious. The high-powered lobbyists working for Dubai Ports World should persuade the company to offer a postponement of the takeover. Everything about the process through which this deal was approved should then be made public. If the administration claims that revealing certain details would hurt national security, it should be required to brief Congress, including the strongest opponents of the deal, on those aspects of the deliberations.

Then, let's have a full-scale debate not only about this deal but about the larger flaws in our system of port security. That's the way to show the world that Americans take this issue seriously and are not engaged in an episode of Arab-bashing.

Yesterday, Bush insisted that the deal would leave our ports safe. "People don't need to worry about security," he said. But many people in both parties are worried because they no longer take the administration's claims at face value. That, too, is progress.

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