The "people responsible" for port deal? Bush, Rumsfeld say: Not us!

The White House says that Bush didn't know about the plan until it was already approved -- despite a federal law that requires presidential approval.

Published February 22, 2006 4:23PM (EST)

It seems like just yesterday -- and, in fact, it was -- that George W. Bush was insisting that the plan to turn over control of six U.S. ports to Dubai Ports World, a company controlled by the government of Dubai, had been subjected to "careful review" by "people responsible in our government."

But just before Bush spoke yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace said they didn't hear about the plan until this weekend. And now the White House is saying that the president didn't learn about the plan until "the last several days" -- which is another way of saying, after his administration had already approved it.

So here's a question: If the "people responsible in our government" aren't the president, the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are they? The answer, it seems, is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which is headed by Treasury Secretary John Snow, who used to be the chairman of CSX Rail, which sold its own port operations to Dubai Ports World in 2004. Snow's committee approved the Dubai Ports World deal earlier this month after a brief review. Federal law requires that the committee engage in a 45-day investigation -- and leave the final decision to the president -- when the plans of a company controlled by a foreign government could affect U.S. national security. Snow's committee didn't engage in such an investigation, and administration officials are apparently at a loss to explain why not.

The president is going to have to explain that one away if he has any hope of quelling a rebellion in his own party and shutting down criticism from Democrats. Bush tried to push back with blunt force yesterday, threatening to veto any legislation aimed at stopping the deal. Opponents, unfazed, are saying that they have the votes in Congress to override any such veto. Now the administration is trying another tack, saying that the president didn't know about the plan and that others in his administration should have done a better job of informing Congress along the way.

It's hard to see how a "they-a culpa" is going to be enough here. Members of both parties are calling on the White House to take a longer look at the deal and the national security concerns that may arise out of turning over the nation's ports to a company controlled by a country with ties to international terrorism. And while the White House usually wins such fights by playing the terrorism trump card -- see, warrantless spying, stymieing of investigation into -- that card is in the other hand this time. With Republicans and Democrats both charging the administration with exposing the country to unnecessary risk, the White House is going to have to say more than it should have handled the matter better. It may even have to answer the kinds of questions it is usually allowed to ignore. Among them: Is it just a coincidence that the president's nominee to run the U.S. Maritime Administration is currently a senior executive for Dubai Ports World?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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