Ignoring the warning signs

We are focusing today on one sentence in a two-page U.S. document officially known as number AFGP-2002-603856. It is a 2002 letter in which al Qaeda says that it has infiltrated United Arab Emirates security and other agencies.

It was a warning siren document that should have raised urgent concerns at the highest level of the U.S. government. President Bush and his entire team initially dozed through the alarm and apparently expected we all would, too. They rushed to approve a bid by Dubai Ports World (a United Arab Emirates company) to buy a British firm that runs six major U.S. ports without publicly addressing the obvious questions the document raises.

The document, a letter from the al Qaeda terrorist organization to the United Arab Emirates government, mainly warns UAE officials to stop arresting al Qaeda’s “Mujahideen sympathizers.” The second paragraph begins with a potentially chilling boast: “You are well aware that we have infiltrated your security, censorship, and monetary agencies along with other agencies that should not be mentioned.”

This document was not exactly a tip top government secret. U.S. officials could find and read it (in its original Arabic or English translation) in the files of various government counter-terrorism agencies. But you can find and read it too. Just check out the Web site of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and peruse the list of unclassified documents. It is the one that says at the top, “In the Name of Allah the Most Compassionate and Merciful,” followed by a warning title, “Get the Idolaters out of Arab Island (Gulf Countries).”

Al Qaeda’s boast that it had “infiltrated” the security and other agencies of the United Arab Emirates, raises all sorts of basic security questions: How can the United States be assured that al Qaeda has not infiltrated DP World or any UAE agency that oversees DP World? How many DP World officials enter ports DP World runs in other countries? Who would be in charge of security clearances for UAE personnel permitted to enter U.S. ports? If al Qaeda operatives have infiltrated DP World or the UAE, could they launch a terrorist attack from inside a U.S. port?

Other questions must also join the realities of today’s global economy and the risks of global terrorism: Since shipping containers are packed and loaded in distant lands _ often never inspected by U.S. personnel _ does it really matter whether al Qaeda secret operatives infiltrate U.S. port facilities?

We must also be very clear what this is not about. This is not about racial profiling of Arabs, nor is it about xenophobia. But it is about acting upon threats we know about and making sure we are not putting our homeland at greater risk.

And finally, it is about a sorry trail of pre-9/11 and post-9/11 leadership failures, including a fear that officials may again be overlooking intelligence that is in their own files.

There was one respect in which the highest level officials we count upon to keep us safe moved swiftly and decisively, almost in unison. After the bipartisan firestorm of concerns about the Dubai port deal erupted, Bush, Vice President Cheney, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Treasury Secretary John Snow (chairman of the inter-cabinet committee that approved the deal) rushed to assure us that it wasn’t their fault because they didn’t know about the deal until it was done. They blamed it on a sub-cabinet junior varsity that blithely okayed the deal without telling any of their bosses, without even a 45 day review of it, because no one objected.

Of course, this was followed by reports that Homeland Security underlings had raised some concerns, and so did the Coast Guard, warning that “many intelligence gaps” made it impossible to assure that terrorists couldn’t gain from a Dubai-run port. Gaps created, no doubt, by intelligence such as Document AFGP-2002-603856.

Bush, after assuring us this was so unimportant it didn’t require his attention, then said it was so important he would veto any congressional effort to halt it. Never mind that he’d never vetoed anything before.

For once, the president may have temporarily unified Washington. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, you can hear the sound of Democratic and Republican minds boggling in bipartisan unison. His administration’s best defense comes down to a plea that Team Bush isn’t guilty of willful negligence after all _ just willful ignorance.

Can you imagine the down-and-dirty attack campaign that Karl Rove would be masterminding right now if all the above had been done not by his boss, but by a Democratic president?

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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