Ports and a Storm

Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), left, listens to Carl Levin (D-Mich.) during a panel meeting on the controversy surrounding management of U.S. port terminals by a Dubai company.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), left, listens to Carl Levin (D-Mich.) during a panel meeting on the controversy surrounding management of U.S. port terminals by a Dubai company. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 24, 2006

Yesterday's meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee felt like some weird role-reversal dream.

There was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), attacking Bush administration officials for being soft on terrorism and "outsourcing our national security."

There was Gordon England, President Bush's deputy defense secretary, pleading with Democrats that "it is very important that we strengthen the bonds of friendship and security with our friends and allies around the world."

And there in the front row was the congressional press corps, asking questions of the witnesses and the senators, who sat side by side on the dais. Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), sounding much like the coordinator of a carnival dunking booth, encouraged reporters to "propound a question." One by one, CBS, Fox, Reuters, even the New Haven Register and Pacifica Radio, demanded answers from the senators and the 10 squirming administration men in suits.

It was, Warner admitted, an "unusual" way to run the committee. But these are unusual times. The Bush administration is facing a full-scale bipartisan revolt over its decision to allow a company owned by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to manage terminals at six U.S. ports. In Iraq, meanwhile, "we see signs that some are interpreting as the brink of civil war," as Warner gingerly put it.

Yesterday, it emerged in the committee hearing that the administration may have skirted the law by not granting a 45-day review of the Dubai ports deal. The law says such a review is mandatory if a sale to a state-owned company "could affect the national security of the United States" -- a standard the administration seemed to acknowledge the deal met because it required special safeguards.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who wrote the 1992 law, demanded to know "why that investigation was not carried out."

Warner asked Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt to "clarify."

"Senator," Kimmitt told Byrd, "we have a difference of opinion on the interpretation of your amendment." The administration, he said, views it "as being discretionary."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), reading the statute to Kimmitt, said the law "requires -- requires -- an investigation."

"We do not see it as mandatory," Kimmitt repeated.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) grew irritated. "If you want the law changed," he told Kimmitt, "come to Congress and change it. But don't ignore it."


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