Thursday, February 23, 2006

Icon See Clearly Now

David Brooks gets hysterical about what he calls the hysteria over the story, and he’s predictably latching on to the worst xenophobia from the wingnuts and ascribing the same motives to those who have legitimate concerns about port security regardless of who is running them.

The oil-rich nations of the Middle East have plenty of places to invest their money and don’t need to do favors for nations that kick them in the teeth. Moreover, this is a region in the midst of traumatic democratic change. The strongest argument the fundamentalists have is that they are engaged in a holy war against the racist West, which imposes one set of harsh rules on Arabs and another set of rules on everybody else. Now comes a group of politicians to prove them gloriously right.

God must love Hamas and Moktada al-Sadr. He has given them the America First brigades of Capitol Hill. God must love the folks at Al Jazeera. They won’t have to work to stoke resentments this week. All the garbage they need will be spewing forth from press conferences and photo ops on C-Span and CNN.

So he is basically ignoring the fact that the Bush administration has basically ignored port security since 9/11, that the sweetheart deal with DP World was worked out in secret and without consulting Congress — or even the president, for that matter — and that in doing so the deal may be in violation of federal law. Those are the issues that have people worked up, and for Mr. Brooks to brush it off as racism only confirms the fact that he’s either not paying attention or he’s doing the bidding of the White House. You make the call.

As this article in the Miami Herald points out, it’s not only a question of who operates the ports but how secure they are and what’s being done to make sure that there are enough resources to protect them against attack.

The sale would give DP World half of the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co., the largest of the port’s three terminal operators.

But foreign ownership of U.S. terminal operations is common — Danish firm A.P. Moller-Maersk operates one terminal at the Port of Miami-Dade — and the security problems ports face stem more from a lack of resources.

(Given the recent crisis over the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, it should be interesting to see how things go between DP World and A.P. Moller-Maersk.)

Responsibility for port security lies with Customs as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement.

At the Miami-Dade port, county police officers staff the main gate and conduct background checks of port workers, which includes fingerprinting. The port’s security budget is $15 million, up from $4.1 million four years ago.

Customs scrutinizes passengers and cargo, but private terminal operators handle security inside property they lease. Operators must present security plans to the U.S. Coast Guard for approval.

“The problem is the Coast Guard is undermanned, and they basically rubber-stamped all the plans,” said Ed Hall, director of operations for consulting firm Maritime Protective Services. “Plans have to audited. But I think this crisis [with DP World] has created a public awareness that will be outstanding in the long run.”


One big problem with port security overall: money. The American Association of Port Authorities estimates ports need $5.4 billion over 10 years to upgrade security, but the Bush administration has budgeted $708 million.

The DP World port management story has become another icon of the Bush administration’s management style: a secret deal worked out between an ally with dubious ties to corporate connections within the Bush administration, a failure to communicate with people (Congress) who have a right and duty to know what’s going on, a lot of bloviation about protecting America without the money to back it up, and a tone-deaf attitude about how to handle the inevitable reaction when the deal becomes public. Put this up there with the other symbols of incompetence that they’ve collected: WMD’s, the cold trail of Osama bin Laden, hurricane recovery, Harriet Miers, the Plame leak, the warrantless wiretapping, Dick Cheney-with-a-gun, et cetera, et cetera. Granted, there’s a certain comfort in consistency, but this is ridiculous.