Documents reveal administration's internal contradictions on port management deal

Published 23 February 2006

The picture which emerges of the Bush administration’s approach to the sale of the British port management company Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation to a Dubai-based company contains inexplicable contradictions, documents given to AP show. Leaving aside the fact that the administration did not fully realize the political minefield it was stepping into when it approved the sale, which would allow a Middle Eastern company to run the operation of six major U.S. ports, here is the contradiction. On the one hand, the administration had — and still has — lingering questions about the national security implications of allowing a Middle Eastern company such sway over major ports. Thus, the administration conditioned its approval of the deal on the UAE company’s commitment to cooperate with future U.S. investigations of its management and security practices. On the other hand, however, the administration chose not to impose other, routine restrictions, thus making the kind of monitoring of the internal operations of the Dubai company more difficult, if not nearly impossible. Yes, the administration insisted that Dubai Ports World would have to agree to reveal records on demand about “foreign operational direction” of its business at U.S. ports (these records broadly include details about the design, maintenance, or operation of ports and equipment) — but the administration did not require Dubai Ports to keep copies of business records on U.S. soil, where the records would be subject to court orders (foreign telecommunications companies, for example, are typically required to store their business records in the United States). The administration also did not insist that the company designate an American citizen to accommodate U.S. government requests (the administration required Dubai Ports to designate an executive to handle requests from the U.S. government, but it did not specify this individual’s citizenship). Legal experts say such obligations are routinely attached to U.S. approvals of foreign sales in other industries. James Lewis, a former U.S. official who worked on such agreements, told AP about the administration’s conditions: “They’re not lax but they’re not draconian.”

Representative Peter King (R-New York), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a leading critic of the sale, said the conditions are evidence the Bush administration was concerned about security. “There is a very serious question as to why the records are not going to be maintained on American soil subject to American jurisdiction,” King said.

-read more in this AP report; and Jim VandeHei’s and Jonathan Weisman’s Washington Post report; see also Bill Gertz’s Washington Timesreport