Since my post on the Dubai ports deal yesterday, the story has continued to grow in political intensity, most recently with Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist’s call for an extended investigation and Pres. Bush’s veto threat this afternoon. And the media continues to do its part to turn up the heat: I’ve been watching Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs on CNN this evening, and it’s clear that heated rhetoric is running miles ahead of sober analysis. At the rate things are heading, this could become a top story for weeks to come. If that leads indirectly to renewed attention to port security and increased federal funding for ports, then perhaps that’s a good thing. But I fear that the Dubai ports story could become a distraction from more urgent homeland security issues, such as passing the Collins-Lieberman chemical security bill or strengthening our disaster response system before the next hurricane season.
That doesn’t have to happen. The Administration should sit down with critics of the deal in Congress from both parties, and work out a sensible compromise that protects both security and legitimate free enterprise. That deal could entail the following:
1. The Adminstration agrees to an extended CFIUS review that includes a full intelligence scrub on DP World and its directors, financial backers, and senior managers.
2. The Adminstration agrees to provide full information to Congress about DP World and the deal in both unclassified and classified forums.
3. The Administration and Congress convene an independent review group of former officials with active (or easy to reactivate) security clearances (for example, former 9/11 co-chairs Kean and Hamilton) to assess the deal, review the same information as CFIUS, and deliver a public opinion on it.
4. If new information is found that causes direct national security concerns, then the Administration will block the deal via Bush’s authority under CFIUS.
5. If there are no new red flags related to DP World, then Congress agrees not to block the deal, subject to the signing of legislation that enhances US oversight over all foreign port terminal operators.
6. That legislation should include the following provisions:
- Mandate an annual internal security audit by companies with at least 5% market share of port operations in the U.S. that demonstrates what they are doing to prevent insider threats. Audit distributed to the Coast Guard, CBP, and the FBI, among others.
- Require companies to locate key security-related data at facilities in the United States, place controls on its access, and maintain tamper-proof audit trails of internal company access to certain types of data.
- Require companies to providing prior written assurance of access by federal law enforcement officials to internal company records and to company directors and senior staff in any relevant investigation.
- Mandate strong penalties for failures of compliance, up to and including forced divestment.
7. The legislation should also include a one-time provision that facilitates cities’ abilities to recompete their port operations contracts in a way that is efficient and fair to all involved parties.
This seems like a sensible compromise that addresses the key security concerns of this deal and can quickly resolve what unnecessarily threatens to become a full-scale political imbroglio. I’m not naively optimistic that this issue will be dealt with in this manner, but I still hope that political leaders can work through a sensible process to resolve it, so that we can get on with other pressing homeland security issues.