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Politicians face off about control of U.S Ports

Should the U.S let a deal go through that would allow a company owned by the United Arab Emirates to manage key U.S. ports? Dan Abrams talks with Republican Congressman Peter King and Randall Larson, director of the Institute for Homeland Security

Should a company owned by the United Arab Emirates control major operations at some of the biggest American ports, cities like New York, Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans?  Seems like a done deal.  The $6.8 billion sale of a London-based firm to Dubai Ports World has been approved by a U.S. group that considers security risks when foreign firms invest here.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has effectively signed off on it.  Now politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying they have serious concerns.

The question everyone is asking, is this just being politicized? Representative Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee,  who also serves in the International Relations Committee and Randall Larson, the director of the Institute for Homeland Security joined ‘The Abrams Report’ on Monday.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, ‘THE ABRAMS REPORT’: Mr. Larson, let me start with you.  I mean we've heard people, you know, senators on both sides of the aisle saying we don't want the United Arab Emirates running our ports and security for our ports.  There is something about that that has a ring of common sense to it. 

RANDALL LARSON, INSTITUTE FOR HOMELAND SECURITY:  Well you just heard Senator Graham there who I greatly respect, but he's wrong when he says we're outsourcing port security.  We are not outsourcing port security.  Port security is the job of the United States Coast Guard, and Customs, and Immigration.  We're not outsourcing that.  They're just wrong when they look at it that way. 

ABRAMS:  Representative King? 

REP. PETER KING ®, NEW YORK:  Yes, I would disagree with that.  First of all, there have been foreign companies running our ports for a number of years, but what makes United Arab Emirates different is first of all, there was no real investigation done whatsoever.  You're talking about a country which has a significant al Qaeda influence.  We're one of the only governments in the world that recognize the Taliban prior to 9-11. 

And despite all of that, there was very little or no investigation done and I met with the people who are involved in the investigation, was very cursory, and that is a terrible precedent to set.  That law they're basing their activities on was written back in 1988.  In the post 9-11 world, we have to be much more intense.

The investigations have to be, you know, much more in depth as being done right now, and that is the real threat here, not so much that it's foreign, but the fact that it's a company owned by a government which has had a significant al Qaeda influence in the past, even though to some extent, they are cooperating with us now.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Mr. Larson, there is something for those of us who don't know exactly how this works in terms of the interagency group, that reviews all these kinds of investments, et cetera, there is something for the common person, when you look at this and you say, the United Arab Emirates is going to be running our port security? 

LARSON:  Well, once again, Dan, they're not running the port security, they’re the port operators.

ABRAMS:  Let's assume for a minute that port operators and let's not quibble over the language, the concern would still be that someone from the United Arab Emirates, a country where many people or at least there are certainly people there and plenty of them, who would like to do bad things to the United States, could infiltrate the company and cause us great harm. 

LARSON:  The folks that work in the port still have to go through the same security procedures that those folks work in ports today.  You realize that almost all the ships that come into our ports are foreign owned too.  This is just not an issue that I think we should be focused on.  There's plenty others about security issues, but this is just not a high priority for me. 

ABRAMS:  Representative King, it's hard for me to believe that Michael Chertoff would be effectively signing off on this, knowing how politically dangerous it is, because it does sound awful, unless he really believed that it was OK. 

KING:  Well, Dan, I can tell you, I know what was done as far as the investigation, it was very cursory.  Basically all they did was ask the intelligence community, do you have anything on file, regarding this company.  There was no vetting done, no investigation, no analysis, no one was spoken to, in any depth whatsoever. 

All of this had to be done within 23 days.  And that includes Anyone who is nominated for a government position, it takes months to clear them.  Here you have an entire company was cleared within 23 days and I spoke to people involved in it, they said it was not a thorough investigation. 

I think what happened here was you had middle level people processing this, the same as they do any other foreign operation.  And they were politically tone deaf.  They were looking at it from a financial point of view as far as foreign investment not dwelling at all on the security part. 

ABRAMS:  But is it possible though that this issue is just being politicized?  Meaning that again it sounds awful when you hear the idea of oh my goodness, the United Arab Emirates is going to be monitoring our ports, but you listen to Mr. Larson, you listen to Homeland Security Director Chertoff, you listen to the administration, you listen to many others and they say look you guys are creating a straw man here.  You're creating a false issue to just bang down and beat up.

KING:  Listen, maybe some people are trying to politicize.  I don't think anyone has supported President Bush more in the war on terrorism than I have.  I have stood by him in virtually every instance and I've been out front for him, but on this one, I really think a mistake has been made.  I think it was made by middle level people in the administration.

It was put on their desk.  I really wonder how much Mike Chertoff was involved in this, until really it was too late and now they're trying to put the best face on this, but again, I've seen the depths of this investigation, and there was very little investigating whatsoever that was done.

ABRAMS:  Mr. Larson, is it possible that more investigation needs to be done? 

LARSON:  I think it would be wonderful if the chairman wanted to look in to this hand do some investigation, but from what I have seen, the folks I have talked to, it's not going to affect port security.  I think there's a legitimate debate about our public infrastructure.  I mean Indiana leased its toll road for 75 years to an Australian company and a Spanish company, so that's a legitimate debate.  Do we want to do that?  I just don't see the security element in this. 

ABRAMS:  So you're saying there's no security issue here, Mr. Larson? 

I mean this just doesn't relate to security at all? 

LARSON:  Well, first of all, I think we waste a lot of money trying to put security into ports anyway.  That's not the way terrorists are going to bring weapons in our country.  They haven't done it in the past.  There's far easier ways to do it.  The al Qaeda manual says build your weapons inside the own countries you want to do and to try to protect a port is incredibly difficult anyway.  They're so large. 

ABRAMS:  But you can't just throw up your arms, right?  You know what, so we might as well let the United Arab Emirates take over.

LARSON:  Dan, Dan, last year the DEA said 300 metric tons of cocaine came into the United States.  I don't think any security procedure is going to stop them from bringing in five pounds of anthrax.  That's not where we should be focusing our efforts.

ABRAMS:  But Representative King, I assume you disagree with that. 

KING:  Yes, I disagree entirely.  There's no doubt our ports are vulnerable.  We have to do a lot more to protect them and again I go back to the fact that this is a very unique situation where you have a country with a large al Qaeda presence being involved and they would be involved in security because for them to do the job of operating the port, they have to interface with our security forces, which means they then get to learn all of our security procedures and we become very vulnerable. 

This is a very, very unique and distinct situation and I think it's madness for us to allow this to go forward as business as usual.  This is different from other cases and if we learned anything from al Qaeda, as we know, they have a long memory and they can wait and they can wait this out and to have a company literally within our defensive perimeter, which could be infiltrated by al Qaeda to me is just inviting disaster and I don't want to have another  incident like we had on 9-11 and another 9-11 Commission and I before and I was asked what I did. 

ABRAMS:  Here's the official statement from the Dubai Ports World, the company.

We've received all the necessary regulatory approvals regarding our acquisition including from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviewed the proposed transaction and concluded they had no objection.  We intend to maintain and where appropriate enhance current security arrangements.

So as a result of that, Representative King, is there anything you'll be able to do now or that Congress will be able to do now that the deal has already gone through?

KING:  Actually, the main one who can do it is the president, because this is a top-secret matter which is handled by the, you know, by 12 agencies within the government.  No one even knew about it until it was approved last week.  The only one who can stop it now is the president. 

What I'm asking the president to do is to put this on hold and put it aside until a full and complete investigation can be carried out.  It should be done by the administration in cooperation with the Congress and not the cursory way it was done up until now.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Well it doesn't seem that Mr. Larson would challenge that. 

LARSON:  I would not object to that at all.

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.