You would hardly notice it for lack of coverage, but thirteen years ago today was one of the most important days in the history of New York. On February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef set off a bomb in the parking garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Yousef’s goal was to bring down the building, but instead he succeeded only in killing 6 and wounding about 1,000. This failure hardly deterred the men behind this attack. Eight years later, Yousef’s uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and many others came and finished the job on the day that we now all know as 9/11.
In 1998, al-Qaeda set off synchronized bombs in the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 258 and wounding about 5,000. President Clinton responded to this with several cruise missile strikes which, history has shown, were on a scale that was too small to disrupt al-Quaeda operations. In February of 1999, however, Clinton had an opportunity to strike at an extremely high value target: al-Quaeda leader Osama bin Laden himself. Intelligence had verified bin Laden’s exact location, and a cruise missile strike was perfectly feasible. They had the clear shot. The strike was abandoned however, because intelligence also showed that bin Laden’s hunting companions on that day included members of the Royal Family of the UAE.
The UAE was formed by a coalition of 6 Persian Gulf states in 1971, with a 7th added in 1972. Dubai is one of these member states, or emirates. The country has a population of about 3.5 million in an area less than the state of Maine. The UAE is governed as a federation, essentially run by the royal families of each of the emirates. There is no democracy there to speak of. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, is a both a financial and travel hub in the region. Dubai also served as both a financial and travel hub in the events of 9/11. 11 of the 19 highjackers entered the US from Dubai and half of the money used to carry out the 9/11 attacks was wired to the US from Dubai banks. In addition to this, 2 of the highjackers were themselves natives of the UAE. The UAE recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and does not currently recognize the legitimacy of Israel. (The last point troubles the Bush administration much less than the fact that Hamas does not recognize Israel.) In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the UAE was, at first, less than cooperative with the efforts to track al-Quaeda money flows through the Dubai banking system.
It’s rather strange, then, that we now face the prospect of a company directly controlled by the government of the UAE operating six of our largest ports on the East coast. That company is Dubai Ports World, and the ports in question are New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Miami. And it should surprise no one that the Bush administration is now facing a heavy backlash over the idea of ceding management of the port of New York to a country indirectly, but inextricably, involved in 9/11.
How exactly did this come about? That’s the easy part. It is not, as some news reports almost seem to imply, the case that someone in the Bush administration woke up one morning and thought to himself, “Dubai should really be running our ports.” No, in fact it’s just a simple case of some global M&A activity: DPW is acquiring British-owned Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, or P&O as it is known. P&O currently operates the ports in question. If the deal goes through, DPW would become the world’s third largest port operator (Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa is number 1 and Singapore’s PSA is number 2). This deal is scheduled to complete on March 2, altough DPW has now agreed to a 45-day security investigation. DPW asserts that, even though the deal will have already been completed while the investigation is conducted, it will keep management of the American ports at arms length, leaving British executives to run them.
The fact that no one in the administration had the judgement to get in front of this issue should, again, surprise no one at this point. Instead, the sory was brought to light and framed by people highly suspicious of the deal, CNN’s Lou Dobbs chief among them. The Bush administration has become increasingly tone-deaf politically and through mishandling the response to this issue, risks losing broad public support for its stance on security, its strongest remaining political asset. And once again, we see that the White House has lost the unflinching, universal support among Republicans that had been its other chief asset. Indeed, several Republicans, including Representative Peter King of NY, have been among the most vocal opponents of the deal.
In all likelihood, the deal will go through. If nothing else, all this hooplah will at least serve to remind us that port security is one of the biggest challenges we now face. We should not need an imbroglio to remind us of this; the issue should already be front and center. But then again, we should not have to be reminded that 13 years ago today al-Qaeda first struck New York and we did too little in response.
Cyril Rugby is cyberkrunk’s senior political correspondent.