Political Hay

Asleep at the Switch — Twice

An ill-informed Congress is not a happy Congress.

By 2.23.06

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Generally speaking, a well-informed Congress, when it is controlled by the party of the White House, is a happy Congress. An ill-informed Congress, on the other hand, is a fractious Congress.

Two recent cases make the point. When news broke of the National Security Agency's intercepting telephone calls from al-Qaeda suspects overseas to confederates in this country, the White House was asleep at the switch. The newspapers were quick to brand it "eavesdropping" and "domestic spying." The ACLU went into immediate full Chicken Little mode. Hill Democrats, desperate to find something -- anything -- in the security area that they could use to get to the right of the president, jumped on this, insisting that Bush illegally approved the NSA program.

When the Democrats read the polls they realized that for the American public national security trumps legal hairsplitting. They have backed off to a position of we-agree-the-president-should-have-this-authority-but-we-should- pass-a-bill-to-authorize it. The furor has subsided, but only after the administration had to work overtime playing catch-up.

Now comes Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates company that was the winning bidder to buy the U.K.'s P&O Steam Navigation Co. which, in turn, has contracts to operate loading and unloading facilities in six U.S. ports. The purchase of P&O by the UAE company had to go through a rigorous review by an inter-agency panel led by the Treasury Department. Having a good reputation of operating ports around the world (some of which service U.S. military ships), Dubai World Ports passed the test. Case closed. Not exactly.

No one at Treasury alerted the White House that news of this might cause much kicking up of dust on Capitol Hill. The president is said to have first learned about it in his morning newspaper one day last week. At that moment the White House should have dispatched briefers to Congress to get the full story out. Alas, they waited until the dark cloud had unleashed a torrent of criticism.

Along with opportunistic Democrats huffing and puffing, the Messrs. Frist and Hastert weighed in with highly critical assessments. Members of both houses, many with an eye cocked on November, thundered that we were selling our ports to foreigners, Arabs would be handling the cargo, DPW would be in charge of port security.

Once again the White House is scrambling to play catch-up. President Bush has threatened to veto any bill designed to deny the approval of DPW and almost certainly has the votes to sustain it. Yet, even the furor is not helpful in the war against ideologically driven terrorism. We want friends in the Arab world and Dubai has been a reliable ally. They have even delivered al-Qaeda suspects to us. As to the affected U.S. ports, security will remain in the hands of the U.S. government, specifically the Coast Guard. The ships will continue to be loaded and unloaded by American longshore workers. And, the management of DPW is largely American.

When a Saudi prince bought a large bloc of Citigroup shares a few years ago, no one worried that cyberterrorists would mess up Citibank's master computers. Or, when he bought a similarly large share of a an American hotel chain, no one warned of Arab saboteurs pouring anthrax in hotel air conditioning systems.

That was then, this is now, and the big difference is politics. Some primary elections take place this spring and the Democrats, worried that they are on the wrong side of the security issue, are grasping at any straw that blows their way.

Rushed briefings of key Congressional Republicans are beginning to have an effect. The back-down position of the Hill leaders seems to be to call hearings to pour oil on the troubled port waters. After the NSA flap, the White House should have been in hair-trigger rapid-response mode, thus avoiding a distracting week-long furor when our full attention should have been focused on Iraq which teeters on the verge of civil war.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”