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A closer look at ports deal

Dubai Ports World showed political savvy by giving the Bush administration a face-saving way to reconsider allowing the Arab company to run terminal operations at six major U.S. ports. State-owned Dubai, controlled by the United Arab Emirates, asked Sunday for a second review of its bid to run the cargo terminals in New York, New Jersey, Miami, New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The move allows the White House to retreat gracefully from a losing battle with Congress, where security concerns about the deal mushroomed last week into a full-blown political standoff.

Company and administration officials said they were confident the new 45-day probe would echo earlier findings that the deal posed no risks to American national security. Dubai was expected this week to close its takeover of Britain's Peninsular and Oriental, which would include management of six American ports. Tampa's port also is moving to lease its cargo facilities to the company. The interagency Committee on Foreign Investment will examine the deal more fully and directly involve the president, giving President Bush a personal stake in ensuring the review is credible and forthright.

This is a good compromise. Though the White House painted the criticism as anti-Arab, the real problem was the holes it exposed in port security, as well as the administration's contempt for disclosure and congressional oversight. Rather than rushing to block the deal, Congress should let the review go forward. Legislation is always an option, anyway, once Dubai's security record becomes clear and the process has a chance to prove its credibility.

As Republicans and Democrats alike have noted, the issue is not Arab-bashing but the federal government's ability to protect the ports, arguably the weakest link in homeland security since 9/11. This new review should publicly air what added security guarantees Dubai made in exchange for U.S. regulatory approval. Administration officials should be prepared to explain how capable local, state and federal agencies are in coordinating security at ports where decisionmaking is outsourced to private companies.

If the Bush administration views this step as merely a sop to quiet Congress - and granted, some critics are grandstanding - it will only heighten public anxiety about the vulnerability of our ports, where 95 percent of the cargo goes uninspected. Dubai Ports may be fine, but the company, like other operators, will still need more help from the Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service and local law enforcement agencies. This is America's real line of defense, and it deserves as much attention as a company half the world away.