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Turning a blind eye to our vulnerable ports

Having an Arab country with a mixed record on terror run six of America's biggest seaports raises legitimate security concerns the Bush administration needs to address rather than dismiss. The issue is not foreign ownership of operations in the global maritime industry, but whether a company controlled by a foreign government is capable of managing a gateway so critical to U.S. national security.

Congress can help by channeling its bipartisan outrage into something constructive - an examination of why, four years after the 9/11 attacks, port security comes nowhere close to addressing the threat seaborne traffic poses to the nation's security.

The state-owned Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates is scheduled to close its takeover of Britain's Peninsular and Oriental next week, which would give the Arab company management control over several of the largest U.S. ports, including New York, New Jersey, Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Tampa's port authority also voted Tuesday to hire Dubai to run cargo handling at its container terminal east of downtown. Supporters say the deal merely reflects the globalization of the shipping business.

That may be true in purely economic terms, but the administration, in approving the transfer, was tone-deaf to the political reality of having Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, control major U.S. entry points. Although the UAE is counted as an ally in fighting terror, it was home to and a financial base for two of the 9/11 hijackers, and it has been a transshipment center for rogue states acquiring nuclear technology. That said, it also has provided humanitarian aid to Iraq and allows U.S. troop movements on its soil. So let's be clear - Dubai is not a terrorist state.

The administration did a poor job of keeping Congress and the states informed about the deal, which was vetted by a foreign investment committee that includes officials from the departments of Treasury, State and Homeland Security. Dubai Ports agreed, in exchange for U.S. approval, to participate in antismuggling and other security programs, but the chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, New York Republican Peter King, said he was unimpressed with the measures and would file emergency legislation to freeze the deal.

Bush, who vowed Tuesday to veto legislation that would nix the deal, and whom the White House on Wednesday acknowledged was unaware of the deal until after his administration approved it, should show some of that pragmatism he talked about in his State of the Union last month. Republican governors and congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, have joined Democrats in asking Bush to reconsider the deal - or at least postpone it long enough for Congress to satisfy its security concerns. Does someone who framed his entire presidency around 9/11 really want to use his first veto against a bipartisan call for vigilance?

If Dubai or the administration's oversight procedure cannot weather a full public airing, it's better to know now, before a handover takes place. Mayor Pam Iorio, who sits on the Tampa port board, should have used the contract as an opportunity to call for more federal protections at U.S. ports. Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and others have tried since 9/11 to focus public attention on inadequate security at the nation's seaports, large, open and sprawling facilities that are inherently vulnerable.

Congress should show its concern is genuine by spending more for the Coast Guard and port security. With more than 95 percent of foreign trade arriving by ship, and only about 5 percent of container cargo being inspected now, the issue is not only who runs the ports but how well our security services back them up.

Some of the reaction on Capitol Hill from Republicans and Democrats borders on anti-Arab prejudice. Contrary to what some lawmakers have charged, this deal would not outsource port security to an Arab-owned company. The physical security of our ports is the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Customs Service controls container security. That would not change. However, that does not mean we shouldn't be concerned.

Bush is saying trust him on this. No wonder the port deal makes Americans uneasy.