No Safe Harbor Here

It was talk radio's Michael Savage who first alerted the president's inner circle to the supposed Arab takeover of America's ports. One of Bush's closest aides tuned in to "The Savage Nation" just before Valentine's Day, to hear the shock jock's angry caricature of how a Dubai company was going to manage terminals at six major U.S. ports. In Savage terms, the country was simply handing over its security to an Arab country complicit in the 9/11 attacks. But the Bush aide knew nothing of the government's role in approving the deal and thought little more of the rant for another week. After all, there were other crises to fret over. Vice President Dick Cheney had just shot a man while hunting quail, and GOP senators were rebelling over legislation on the domestic eavesdropping program. Nobody--from the lower-level officials reviewing the deal to the White House aides handling Congress--saw the iceberg until it was too late.

How did an obscure maritime takeover turn into a political shipwreck? First, it's election year. For the past two campaign cycles, Karl Rove has successfully painted Democrats as soft on national security. The Dubai sale offered them a golden opportunity for payback. The GOP leadership on Capitol Hill did not want to get stuck trying to explain the sale to a public anxious after hearing how little had been done to protect U.S. ports. Besieged by calls from worried constituents, they publicly broke with Bush, rushing to delay or block the deal. The math wasn't hard to do: One Rasmussen poll registered 17 percent support for the deal, and showed Bush narrowly trailing congressional Democrats on his signature issue of national security.

The White House, meanwhile, was slow to read the signs. Nobody had tracked the bidding war for the venerable British ports company called the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (known as P&O). And nobody noticed an Associated Press story--on the day of Cheney's hunting incident--that aired the security concerns of a small Miami port operator called Eller. A disgruntled partner of P&O, Eller feared that an Arab government takeover could trigger a political backlash that might jeopardize its business. Its lawyers approached the Feds but were brushed aside; the security review was long complete.

The Miami company was not the only one struggling to be heard. Rep. Peter King, the GOP chair of the House homeland security committee, called the White House to ask about the deal a few days after the AP story. A senior official told him not to worry, but conceded he didn't know about any investigation into the Dubai company. When King said he planned to go public, the White House official shrugged and said, "Go ahead." The next day, King teamed with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer to call for a halt to the sale. That was the same day that chief of staff Andy Card first briefed the president on the matter.

Bush was promoting his new policies on renewable energy near Denver on Tuesday morning when the crisis came to a head. Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, the GOP leaders of the Senate and House, informed the White House they would oppose the deal. Bush ordered his staff to contact each cabinet secretary involved in reviewing the sale to make sure everyone stood by the decision. His aides finally got the cabinet's green light as they prepared to fly back to Washington. Reassured, Bush called reporters to his conference room aboard Air Force One, where he suggested that critics were indulging in anti-Arab prejudice and promised to veto any legislation blocking the deal. Senior Bush officials (many of whom have been reading Thomas Friedman's latest book, "The World Is Flat") worried that killing the deal would alienate trading partners and imperil the president's economic agenda.

Still, the storm spread. Midweek, as he stepped off the plane in Ohio on a trip to boost candidates in tight congressional races, the president was greeted by Rep. Steve Chabot. The congressman pressed into Bush's hand a cartoon from that morning's Cincinnati Enquirer. It showed a grinning Arab emir spreading his arms over an American port. The caption read, "Relax, Homeland Security has everything under control."

Many security experts saw no cause for concern from a company so multinational in its makeup that it has been criticized in its own backyard for not hiring enough Arabs. Regardless of who owns the ports, the experts said, security would still be handled by the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and dockworkers hired through U.S. unions. The United Arab Emirates, home to the Dubai firm, drew fire when money to fund the 9/11 attackers sloshed through their wide-open banking system. But since then, they've cooperated extensively with the U.S. military and intelligence services.

Dubai Ports World already works closely with the United States, shutting down its commercial traffic whenever the Navy sails in. So when it first approached the Feds about a takeover in mid-October, there were no red flags. American officials asked the company to sign assurances that it would follow their security orders and allow access to records. They finished their formal review in mid-January with no public fanfare and no extended inquiry.

Late last week, the company volunteered to leave the U.S. port managers in place for a time in a bid to ease the immediate political pressure. And former Capitol Hill heavyweights Bob Dole and Vin Weber (close friend of Karl Rove) rushed to help calm Congress down. That won't be easy. The deal is still set to close on Thursday, and the administration says that it cannot legally reopen the review process. But members of both parties are determined to do just that. "If we voted on this thing today, it would pass like a bill honoring Rosa Parks," says one GOP leadership aide, who spoke anonymously owing to the sensitivity of the negotiations. The battle will be rejoined when Congress returns to work on Tuesday--just as Bush flies east to India and Pakistan. And with the captain off the deck, the restless crew might just mutiny.