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Port controversy stirs wide security concern

(The following article by Herb Jackson was posted on NorthJersey.com on March 13.)

WASHINGTON -- The Amtrak tunnel that runs under the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., half a mile south of Union Station, may not seem to have any connection with a Dubai company's attempt to buy terminal operations at six American ports.

Members of Congress had no trouble tying the two last week, however.

Democratic senators compared the Bush administration's casual treatment of what they thought were the dire security implications of the Dubai purchase to the lack of federal attention being paid to the Amtrak tunnel's vulnerability to terrorists.

Similarly, the Dubai card also was played by Democrats and Republicans battling against a proposed Bush administration regulation to allow for more foreign control of airlines.
Suddenly, the Dubai deal has become a shorthand justification for any congressional effort to spend more money for security or restrict foreign ownership of industries or facilities.

Cause for alarm

Democrats argue the Dubai purchase showed the American public that President Bush was not taking terrorism threats seriously enough, and are extending that argument to say that other threats also are being ignored. The natural solution, therefore, is for Congress to step up.

"The president says trust him on security," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Thursday.
"Well, you saw the vote yesterday in the House and the vote about to take place here. Neither Democrats nor Republicans trust him on security. His administration has shown a dangerous incompetence ... whether it's Katrina or the ports or, I would argue, on rail."

Biden and other Democrats held a news conference near the anniversary of terrorist bombings on trains in Madrid to decry Congress's failure to pass a rail security funding bill. To highlight the potential threats, Biden noted that federal agents posing as workmen were able to enter the Amtrak tunnel in Union Station and plant a phony "bomb" under the court building without being detected.

"Madrid should have been a wake-up call," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said at the same press conference. "The bombings in London should have been a reminder. But it seems to me all the administration has done instead of having a wake-up call is hit the snooze alarm instead."

Promoting legislation

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey's other Democratic senator, and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-Vineland, both used the port controversy to promote their bill on airline security. The bill would block an administration effort to change federal rules that restrict the amount a foreign company can invest in a domestic U.S. airline. The administration proposed lifting that regulation in December as part of a trade agreement with the European Union.

"First our ports, now our airlines – President Bush is holding a fire sale of vital parts of our U.S. economy," Lautenberg said in a letter to Senate leaders calling for action on his bill.

LoBiondo is also a co-sponsor with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, of a bill that would bar foreign ownership of any infrastructure identified as "critical" by the secretaries of homeland security or defense.
Chamber scared

Bruce Josten, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labeled that bill the "scariest" of more than a dozen bills proposed in the three weeks after the Dubai controversy erupted.

"If you go to the White House report on critical infrastructure, there's 17 different categories," Josten said. "The real question might be, 'What's not included?' The list includes agriculture, water, banking, finance, the entire energy sector, food companies."

Josten noted that the latest data show that while foreign companies invested $80 billion in the United States in 2004, investment by U.S. companies abroad totaled $229 billion that year, and said Congress needs to think about whether increased protectionism would result in foreign retaliation.

"The thing that's important for the American people to understand is that one out of every 12 people who work in manufacturing today in this country work for a foreign-owned company," Josten said.

Joseph Marbach, chairman of the political science department at Seton Hall University, said the reaction to the Dubai deal has bordered on xenophobia.

"I think it was an overreaction on the part of an ill-informed public, and a number of politicians took full advantage of that, including our own Senator Menendez," Marbach said. "A lot of this violates elements of the World Trade Organization, where the United States has been saying for years we need to open up the process to free trade."

Monday, March 13, 2006

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