KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush made several public appearances today but made no mention of the controversial sale of shipping operations at six U.S. seaports to a state-owned United Arab Emirates company. However, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the president still stands behind the deal but admitted Mr. Bush knew nothing about it until the news recently was publicized.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: It was coming out last week and he learned about it over the last several days.
KWAME HOLMAN: But McClellan stressed the deal had been vetted carefully by officials at multiple cabinet agencies, who determined it would not pose a national security threat.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: There are no objections raised by any of the departments that are charged with being involved in this process. And that's why it didn't rise up to the presidential level.
But even in spite of that, with all the attention that this transaction has received, the president felt it was very important to go back to each cabinet secretary who has responsibility for this process and ask them, are you comfortable with this transaction proceeding forward? And they all said yes.
KWAME HOLMAN: The $6.8 billion deal scheduled to become final next week would give Dubai Ports World ownership of a British firm that currently manages shipping operations in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans.
SPOKESPERSON: I am very worried about this proposed sale.
KWAME HOLMAN: The new arrangement continues to draw criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, many of whom point to the fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers used the United Arab Emirates as an operational and financial base.
Several governors of states with affected ports said the deal would raise the risk of terrorism. New Jersey's Jon Corzine is a Democrat.
GOV. JON CORZINE: It's just incomprehensible to those of us who are concerned for the safety and security of our community.
KWAME HOLMAN: That was echoed by Maryland's Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich.
GOV. ROBERT EHRLICH: Job one is public safety paramount during a time of war, a terror war.
KWAME HOLMAN: Opposition to the plan was even louder from members of Congress. New York Republican Congressman Peter King vowed to block the deal entirely.
REP. PETER KING: If we learned anything on 9/11 it is that we can never be too careful. In this case we're actually being negligent, and it almost approaches criminal negligence.
KWAME HOLMAN: New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said he would introduce legislation at least to suspend the transaction.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Our legislation will go to the floor, House, Senate, next week, and it's going to pass like a hot knife through butter, I dare say; I can't imagine there being a single vote against it.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the opposition extends to Congress's top two Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, both of whom also promised legislation to put the deal on hold, but the president made it clear yesterday he would veto any such bill.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction. But they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully.
Again, I repeat, it's - if there is any question as to whether or not this country would be less safe as a result of the transaction, it wouldn't go forward.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the issue is dominating the news.
CORRESPONDENT: The White House is forced into damage control -
CORRESPONDENT: A rebellion from leaders in both political parties --
KWAME HOLMAN: And was the lead issue on many editorial pages this morning.
Hoping to amplify its side of the story, the administration sent out senior officials for televised interviews --
SPOKESMAN: -- is that the UAE is a strong partner in the war on terror.
KWAME HOLMAN: -- and lesser-known cabinet officials involved in the initial review of the deal, such as Stewart Baker from the Homeland Security Department.
STEWART BAKER: We have never done an agreement of this kind in the context of ports before, so in that sense this is a new layer of controls.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow the Senate Armed Services Committee will get a briefing on the ports deal from administration officials.
JIM LEHRER: And how it all looks to Shields & Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
How do you explain this uproar, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the uproar is predictable, Jim. I mean, for one thing, it's political. The Republican Party was really, if you look at it, bereft of any advantage over the Democrats on the economy, on health care, on the budget, on handling of Iraq.
The one whole card they had, the one strong suit was the strength in the war against terrorism, that they were making the country safe, that George Bush had won reelection in large part by a risk-averse nation saying, I'm going to keep you safe, and the other guy's a little reckless.
And quite frankly, Republicans see this being forfeited, that advantage, through this. They see the president squandering what was their advantage. His name will never again appear on another ballot. Every republican in the house will be running, a third of the Republicans in the Senate are going to be running this fall. And they're frankly nervous about it.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to, that David?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's mass hysteria.
JIM LEHRER: Mass hysteria.
DAVID BROOKS: I think that week ago none of the people we saw in that report knew a thing about port security or cared anything about port security.
JIM LEHRER: Including the president.
DAVID BROOKS: Including the president. This was a thing for experts. I think what's happened, we've had some nativism, some isolationism and just mass hysteria and a lot of political pandering.
But the thing that gives me solace about this is I haven't read of a single expert who knows what they're talking about who thinks there's anything to this story. There's not a single person I've read who thinks the security will be changed. The Coast Guard and Customs will still be in charge of security. The American Longshoremen will still be there. The managements will still be there.
That is a globalized industry and the transfer from one holding company to another, according to every expert I've read, doesn't think this will make a difference. So I happen to think this will burn out.
JIM LEHRER: You think it will burn out. So you don't agree with Sen. Schumer that when this goes to Congress next week it will pass like a hot knife through butter?
DAVID BROOKS: It might. But this has all burst out of nowhere and it could easily dissolve out of nowhere. I see the tremendous weight of the evidence -- there's no evidence, there's no serious sense that there's any real security threat.
On the other hand, there's a tremendous sense it's going to do tremendous harm to American interests, first in Dubai, a country that invests here, but second throughout the Arab world.
I just came back from Doha where you came across --
JIM LEHRER: Tell us where Doha is.
DAVID BROOKS: Doha is in Qatar, right - a stone's throw away from Dubai.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DAVID BROOKS: And a lot of Muslim democrats in the conference over there, and the one thing you heard from them again and again and again, there's this democratic wave sweeping across the whole region but it's not warm and sunny. It's being -- the democratic opportunity is being seized by Hamas and other Islamic fanatics and their main argument is that the West is filled with racists who have one rule for themselves and another harsher rule for us Arabs.
And what's happening on Capitol Hill reinforces that. It gives tremendous strength to bin Laden, Hamas, and all the Islamists, and it's just doing tremendous harm to America's reputation in the West. So some time sense is going to come back.
JIM LEHRER: Sense is going to come back?
MARK SHIELDS: I'll save David the Doha perspective in this story, I'll talk about the political. Today Jim, members of Congress were reporting that neighbors were coming up to them and saying "What's going on? Explain this would you please? "
Jim, what you have to understand is the Bush administration has made the case that the war in Iraq has been a disaster. Every rationale for that war has been discredited, from Saddam being part of 9/11 to having weapons to being part of al-Qaida, all the rest of it. The one argument that they used that had some sticking point, some coherence politically was "it's better to fight them over there than to fight them over here." Well, to a lot of people it's bringing them over here.
We know now that only 2 to 5 percent of all the boats, all the ships that come into the United States are even inspected. And the idea of turning it over, they've made the case. The administration has made the case, quite frankly, and the idea that the president wasn't involved, for Scott McClellan to stand up there, how do you distance a president from his own administration? I mean, that to me is incomprehensible.
JIM LEHRER: David, what about that -- not only that, the president or the administration didn't talk to anybody in Congress, including their own Republican leadership?
DAVID BROOKS: Right, I think they now understand that was a mistake.
I think what happened was that you have these technocrats who don't think like politicians going through a process, which was completely well reported in the financial press, much talked about, this was a big firm, it owns a lot of ports or operates a lot of port management in a lot of countries, none of whom are going through this nativist hysteria. And they thought, well, we do this all the time, we check it out; we have 12 agencies check it out. Technocratically it all checks out; this firm's fine, Dubai is fine, so let it go through. So they're thinking like technocrats, then all along - this really started and really got the biggest push from Michael Savage, who is a genius for understanding what's going to --
JIM LEHRER: He's a very conservative radio host.
DAVID BROOKS: Beyond conservative, reactionary.
JIM LEHRER: Whatever. You use the word, I won't use the word.
DAVID BROOKS: And so he had a sense this is going to seem weird to people who don't know about it. And it does, UAE, Arabs, ports, ports are insecure, people have a sense that's true. And it's exploded on left and right. But the point for politicians is at some point you have to be a statesman, you have got to resist when you get this popular tide and nobody on Capitol Hill is doing, that except John McCain.
JIM LEHRER: Except John McCain. John McCain did say that he wants to hear the evidence but until he hears something to the contrary he'll go with the commander in chief. Do you think the president will actually veto this?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, this is Bitburg. Remember Bitburg when Ronald Reagan went 40 years after the end of World War II and they scheduled an appearance at cemetery at the behest of Helmut Kohl, the German leader, and it turned out to be SS troops? This is the same kind of tone deaf approach.
And the United Arab Emirates, let's get -- it's not Athens, all right -- there are only three countries in the entire world that diplomatically recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan. And the United Arab Emirates was one of them. So, I mean, this isn't exactly Iowa we're talking about or Vermont or some sort of a friendly -- necessarily friendly ally of ours in all of these struggles.
MARK SHIELDS: Is it a business transaction? Is it going to hurt global economy? Probably so. But George Bush promised that he'd be a uniter not a divider. Tell me six years later he has redeemed that promise. He has brought together the editorial page of the Washington Times, the editorial page of the New York Times, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, Cal Thomas, you name it. I mean, it is overwhelming.
JIM LEHRER: You think it's overwhelming but you think it's going to go away, David, because you think it's nonsense?
DAVID BROOKS: There are a whole series of editorial pages, the Washington Post was one of them, which has very persuasive articles -- the Times quoted expert after expert of people saying it's illogical, this whole thing is illogical, so there's just no there, there. You can talk about, you know, the massive terror war. There's sort of this abstract rhetoric about that we're in threat, we're in danger, but when you get actually down to the deal, when you get down to the operation of the ports, there's no even an argument for why this is dangerous.
JIM LEHRER: But back to Mark's point, David, the tin ear argument. AP ran a story this afternoon, in fact, that said why didn't somebody -- he's asking -- the person who wrote the story is asking the question. Why didn't somebody in this process you were just talking about say "wait a minute, United Arab Emirates, eh Arab this, that, 9/11, say we should maybe take a look at this and maybe bump it up to the White House?
DAVID BROOKS: Think of the tunnel vision of a technocrat. The UAE is the first government in that region to agree to our contracts about how we secure containers and ships. The UAE has been a tremendous friend to the U.S. in Iraq and around the region. It's a modernizing globalizing part of the world. They're in this little tunnel vision, they know UAE pretty well; they know the container industry pretty well, it seems normal to them.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yes?
MARK SHIELDS: Democrats lost in 2002; they were clubbed over the head on they weren't the party -- they didn't understand national security, they didn't understand terror. They lost in 2004 when all the issues were going their way on the basis of terrorism and the culture. Now, Karl Rove, the genius, stands up there and says the Democrats have a pre-9/11 mentality, we have a post-9/11 mentality.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Menendez of New Jersey said just the opposite last night.
MARK SHIELDS: Made that point last night in the interview with you.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: And I think you cannot blame Democrats politically for saying wait a minute, they've been saying that for so long and wait a minute, who now has a post 9/11 mentality --
JIM LEHRER: We will pick up this conversation on Friday night unless David's right and there's not going to be a story; it's going to go away.
DAVID BROOKS: You sound skeptical! (Laughs)
JIM LEHRER: He thinks it's going to go away. Do you think this thing is going to go away, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: No, it's not going to go away.
JIM LEHRER: It's not going to go away. We will see what happens between now and Friday.
DAVID BROOKS: I'll be wrong.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you both.