Bush Unaware of Ports Deal Before Approval

The White House now says President Bush was unaware of the controversial sale of the company that maintains several U.S. ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai.

President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates until the deal already had been approved by his administration, the White House said Wednesday. Defending the deal anew, the administration also said that it should have briefed Congress sooner about the transaction, which has triggered a major political backlash among both Republicans and Democrats.

Bush on Tuesday brushed aside objections by leaders in the Senate and House that the $6.8 billion sale could raise risks of terrorism at American ports. In a forceful defense of his administration’s earlier approval of the deal, he pledged to veto any bill Congress might approve to block the agreement involving the sale of a British company to the Arab firm.

Bush faces a rebellion from leaders of his own party, as well as from Democrats, about the deal that would put Dubai Ports in charge of major shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

While Bush has adamantly defended the deal, the White House acknowledged that he did not know about it until recently. “He became aware of it over the last several days,” McClellan said. Asked if Bush did not know about it until it was a done deal, McClellan said, “That’s correct.” He said the matter did not rise to the presidential level, but went through a congressionally-mandated review process and was determined not to pose a national security threat. “The president made sure to check with all the Cabinet secretaries that are part of this process, or whose agencies or departments are part of this process,” the spokesman said. “He made sure to check with them — even after this got more attention in the press, to make sure that they were comfortable with the decision that was made.” “And every one of the Cabinet secretaries expressed that they were comfortable with this transaction being approved,” he said.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez, told The Associated Press in an interview: “They are not in charge of security. We are not turning over the security of our ports. When people make statements like that you get an instant emotional reaction.”

It never occured to me that the matter would have risen to presidential visibility; it’s just not that kind of issue. Still, issuing this announcement is a clear signal that the White House understands, perhaps a bit late, that they have stumbled onto something that has united critics on the Left and the Right.

Ironically, there is probably nothing wrong with the sale. We had already turned port operations over to a private, foreign-owned company. It is not obvious why a British corporation would be any more concerned with U.S. national security interests than the government of an Arab ally.

Still, is is likely the case that such a company is an easier target for infiltration by our enemies. Increased scrutiny is warranted. Hysteria, however, is not.

Update: Case in point: Rep. Sue Myrick’s one sentence, error-filled letter to President Bush.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bush Was Unaware Of Ports Deal…

    Well, this report is just going to make the political landfield that the Bush Administration has found itself in regarding the deal that would result in a company from the United Arab Emirates running America’s major seaports.

    WASHINGTON — Pres …..

  2. White House: Bush didn’t know about ports deal until it was OK’d…

    President Bush was unaware of the pending sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to …

  3. LJD says:

    How come no one is talking about which administration originally sold this operation to the Brits? Or, if resold before that, which administration ‘outsourced’ it?

    Does any one have that information?

    I have an assumption, but I’ll hold it until I get confirmation.

  4. DC Loser says:

    It really disgust me to see politicians of both parties stoop this low, using xenophobia, to score political points.

  5. legion says:

    I’m more curious about _when_ the actual ‘outsourcing’ of the ports occurred. Let’s face it people, before 9-11, letting our good freinds the Brits manage some of our major port facilities would not have been that big a deal at all. Post 9-11, however, it’s clear that _any_ foreign influence on our physical security can be a big issue.

    It never occured to me that the matter would have risen to presidential visibility; it’s just not that kind of issue.

    Gimme a break – this is a major issue. That much can be seen from the bipartisan furor over having this decision made completely in the dark. And if Bush didn’t know about it, and Rumsfeld didn’t know about it, who exactly made this decision?!? While Guiterrez is correct that we’re not handing over security management, this does have a _major_ impact on port security, and neither the Pres nor the SecDef knew anything about it until after the decision was made? WTF?

    And on a related topic – Bush threatening a veto over this? That’s the funniest thing he’s said in weeks!

  6. James Joyner says:

    Legion: I wouldn’t think the sale of routine contracts would rise to secretarial level. Probably some SES somewhere, would be my guess.

    The furor over this is that the company is Arab. If it had gone to a Belgian company, we surely wouldn’t have heard about it.

  7. […] I also agree completely with James Joyner’s point: Still, is is likely the case that such a company is an easier target for infiltration by our enemies. Increased scrutiny is warranted. Hysteria, however, is not. […]

  8. Port Security: We Weren’t Wrong To Question, But We’re Satisfied By The Answers…

    As of yesterday, the port story was proceeding, full steam ahead, as major headline news. Every outlet is scrambling to jump on board, getting their piece of the action. And just like any good reporter knows, scandal (or perception thereof) makes for …

  9. legion says:

    James-True, but it raises the question of why Bush came out so defensively gung-ho about a ‘routine deal’, even to the point of threatening a veto… especially when he didn’t know anything about it until after the ink was dry.

    This doesn’t make sense no matter how it’s spun…

  10. James Joyner says:

    Legion: My guess is that it’s for the reasons Barnett outlines. Alienating Dubai is not something he wants to do.

    Plus, as Drezner (or somebody) points out, Bush tends to defend executive prerogatives pretty fiercely.

  11. RA says:

    Apparently the sale of this company was only finalized a month ago. Since this was two foreign countries acting independently its not suprising that no one is up to speed.

  12. Yhoi says:

    “He became aware of it over the last several days,” McClellan said. Asked if Bush did not know about it until it was a done deal, McClellan said, “That’s correct.”

    What in the hell does McClellan mean that Bush didn’t know about it until the “last several days”? It was reported widely in the press on February 11! That was nearly two weeks ago?!?! Where the hell has Bush been?