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Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post Congressional reporter Shailagh Murray was online Thursday, Feb. 23, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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washingtonpost.com: Shailagh Murray will be online today in place of Dana Milbank. He will instead be online for tomorrow's Post Politics Hour.

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Alexandria, Va.: Has anyone noticed the irony of wiretapping/spying on Americans and then turning the management of ports to companies headquartered in an area of the world our leaders have told us to fear? Or the irony of expecting blind compliance from the same folks who assured us WMD were real and not assure us that there is no problem trusting those people who are closely aligned to 'the enemy'? Life just gets more and more like Alice in Wonderland!

Shailagh Murray: Greetings, everyone -- I am substituting for the substitute and am happy to entertain all topics. Like a good politician I will answer whether I have the facts to back me up, or not.

My expertise on port issues is based on having shipped a container load of household goods across the ocean. Does anyone have any idea how this industry works? It seems like that's a big part of the problem. But I would love to hear from folks on this issue, as it's hard to get a reading on how it's going down.

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Syracuse, N.Y.: Re: the port in a storm uproar...few are making a distinction between a company owned by an Middle Eastern citizen or group of investors, vs. a company owned by a foreign government--how important is that distinction? Most of what I've seen written talks about Dubai Ports as an 'Arab-owned' company, which is vague at best.

Foreign-owned is not the same as foreign-government-owned, or is it? Are there other areas of American day-to-day life run by companies owned by foreign governments, vs. foreign investors?

I don't know as I would have liked a British government owned company much better...

Shailagh Murray: Most countries have national industries -- the Europeans all had their airlines, car companies used to be subsidized, oil, gas, banking -- you name it, until very recently, state ownership was the norm around the world. Much of Dubai's economy IS its port, which you would think gives the government a serious incentive to run Dubai Ports responsibly. Another way of thinking about it: with some countries, you'd rather do business with the government, because at least there's some accountability. Think Russia.

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Rutherfordton, N.C.: What's all the fuss about? Seems pretty simple. They've negotiated a deal to have a UAE firm manage the administration of the six ports -- but security remains as it has in the hands of the USCG and Customs. Where's the beef?

Shailagh Murray: Reason prevails in Rutherfordton! It's always the case that the company isn't squeaky clean, but so far all we've heard is speculation.

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Baltimore, Md.: As you can imagine, the Baltimore Sun has done extensive stories on this from an industry point of view. And former Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, who was a maritime reporter before entering politics, has said that this is nothing to be concerned about. The company taking over is essentially charged with nuts and bolts management of terminals--telling stevedores what do unload and when. And while I believe the people who know more about this than I do, I also know the the Executive branch had to be utterly blind to not see that, "We are turning over management of five major American ports to a company owned by an Arab government" would create a firestorm after the past 4+ years of the Administration beating the terror drum whenever it suited them. Then, to try and quell that firestorm, they sent out poor Michael Chertoff to say, as always, "Trust us," only a few days after his hide had been blistered by Congress for Homeland Security's incompetent response to Katrina.

It is, in a word, unbelievable.

Shailagh Murray: Thanks for this excellent overview -- it does appear, fundamentally, to be a public relations blunder by the Bush Administration.

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Clear Brook, Va.: Does Congress have the moxie to override Bush's threatened veto of a bill to keep an Arab country out of the port security business?

Shailagh Murray: I would bet that this subsides as the Bushies appreciate their blunder and Congress digests the facts -- but if it does go all the way to a veto showdown, it appears right now that Congress could override handily.

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Austin, Tex.: So how is the port issues playing on the Hill? What part of the deal does Congress seem most upset about? That it was not informed, that the company is a Middle-Eastern enterprise or that there seems to be more than a whiff of cronyism involved? (as usual, I might add)

Shailagh Murray: If you took the Arab element out of it, would Congress have even noticed this transaction, whether it was informed or not? I doubt it. I get why the Democrats jumped all over this, but the Republican pile-on is pretty much unprecedented. I think it's pent up frustration with Bush on other issues, but that's just a hunch.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: The AP just reported that the UAE has a secret agreement to cooperate with the U.S. investigations in return for this deal. What is this about?

Shailagh Murray: Sounds like one of those mitigating issues that could have deflected the whole controversy, had the White House played this better.

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Detroit, Mich.: Hi Shailagh, this is a question on which you probably have most facts, if not all. What is the status of the lobbying reform bill? Is anything happening on that front.

Shailagh Murray: This is an easy one -- very few facts to know! There is no one lobbying reform bill -- both chambers are toiling away on separate efforts, and the betting now is that they are unlikely to culminate in much beyond tougher disclosure rules. Which is actually more significant than it seems, if reporters take advantage of the new information.

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Providence, R.I.: Maybe rather than highlighting UAE as being unfit for ownership of these ports, it would be more reasonable, and better politics besides, to declare that some native industries are simply too security-sensitive to be held by any foreign interests. We wouldn't, for instance, allow our nuclear plants to be owned by disinterested third parties, would we? Is there any thought, between the executive branch and Congress, to rethink the issue of foreign ownership entirely?

Shailagh Murray: A good point. That's certainly the view of many countries. However, I would point out that American ports aren't "owned" by foreign companies -- these are operational agreements. It's the difference between owning a baseball stadium, and holding the gate and concession contracts.

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New York, N.Y.: If Bush somehow prevails in the ports deal, doesn't this just keep the issue alive through the election? Even if he gets Republican support, prevailing on this would maintain a rift in that party as well as handing the Dems an easy line of attack. If Bush concedes on this, it may weaken him but it would leave his party stronger.

Shailagh Murray: The biggest mystery here is the degree to which the debate -- however it turns out -- hurts Bush. It's an interesting twist of fate that he takes what a lot of editorial pages (including ours), columnists, the opinion elite types, would consider to be the high road -- and the result is what appears to be the biggest inter-party spat of his presidency.

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Rutherfordton, N.C.: Shailagh -- Please give us a phonetic clue how to pronounce your first name. Thanks.

Shailagh Murray: I'm posting this so my mother sees it -- thanks ma! It's like Sheila, but with a long "a."

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Washington, D.C.: Mixed Emotions: Thanks for doing the chat, Shailagh!

On the merits, much as it pains me to admit it as a card-carrying liberal Democrat, I have to side with the administration on the port management issue. BUT: After five years of watching Bush, Rove & Co. win elections by bashing Democrats as supposedly "soft" on national security, I can't tell you how happy I am to see the shoe pinching the other foot for a change!

Shailagh Murray: You are not alone. There are lots of guilty Democrats around town, realizing they were undercharged for that case of wine as they drove away from the liquor store.

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Boston, Mass.: You're totally missing why Republicans are jumping on Bush. This administration, FOX News, right-wing talk radio, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, etc. have spent 5 years ginning up fear of Islamic terrorist attacks. Bush has played the fear card a million times, using our "post 9-11 world" as an excuse to spy on Americans, set up secret prisons overseas, send people to foreign countries to be tortured, invade Iraq, etc.

They've taught the American people -- and more importantly, their conservative base -- to deal with issues of security, terrorism, and civil rights on an emotional basis.

And now they're reaping what they've sown.

Shailagh Murray: This is a great point, many thanks...

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Columbus, Ohio: Several months ago there was an uproar when Harry Reid took the Senate into executive session and "forced" the Republicans into proceeding with promised but long delayed hearings on 9/11. Supposedly it was agreed that they would proceed in the near future.

I haven't heard a thing about it since. Whatever happened with this.

Shailagh Murray: Got a couple of questions on this. The Senate Intel Committee still hasn't produced its report, but Pat Roberts says it's coming soon. But Democrats are starting to complain again.

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Washington, D.C.: re: "We wouldn't, for instance, allow our nuclear plants to be owned by disinterested third parties"

Actually, if Toshiba goes ahead and buys Westinghouse, then a number of our nuclear power plants will be owned by a foreign-based company. Additionally, there are only 7-8 companies in the world that provide operational support to the ports. None of them are U.S. companies.

In your opinion, isn't this just scare politics?

Shailagh Murray: The less people know, the easier they get scared. They are literally "in the dark." The question is, can that fear be quelled through hearings like the one the Armed Services Committee is holding right now? All you every wanted to know about ports and maritime security is now being revealed on C-Span.

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Ohio: So maybe there's not a security issue with the Dubai company. Maybe it wouldn't put us at risk, and maybe it's not illegal.

But at what point do we as a nation say that regardless of whether or not it's "safe" or "legal" to do it, that the President -- and the government as a whole -- has a responsibility to follow the will of the American people?

If the American people say "Don't allow our nation to sell our ports to foreigners", the President can bluster all he wants - but does he really want to be seen as overriding the will of the ENTIRE electorate? He can't even argue that his micromajority "mandate" of his base is telling him to do this.

Doesn't this come down to whether or not we're a democracy or a monarchy?

Shailagh Murray: This is certainly one of the most intense debates I've ever seen on a chat. Can you imagine the Saudis buying the Chicago Cubs? Every nation has its cultural thresholds, whether they're spelled out in laws or not. And maybe that's what we're confronting with the ports flap.

Let's see where this stands on Monday -- I'll be back then for my scheduled chat. Thanks and cheers to all, Shailagh

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