March 17 (Bloomberg) — Watching Olympia Snowe, you get the feeling she actually views herself as a genuine Olympian, a sort of goddess protecting the integrity of the U.S.
In the case of the Dubai Ports deal, for example, the Republican Senator recently joined other lawmakers in questioning how such an agreement with a company based in the United Arab Emirates came about. Specifically, she challenged the Bush administration as being too passive in its review of DP World's bid to manage ports on the U.S. coast.
"Obviously, we're all deeply troubled by the national security implications of this transaction, particularly because it did not — was not given the highest level of priority, was not given the highest level of consideration by the highest levels of leadership in our government."
Snowe isn't alone in her vigilance. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey has also criticized the administration for laxness in vetting DP World. He is concerned about the Committee on Foreign Investments in the U.S., whose job it is to baby-sit such transactions. In a statement, Menendez said of the administration vis-a-vis CFIUS: "There are serious questions about both its willingness and its ability to act on the results."
The suggestion here is that savvy intervention and scrupulous oversight by the White House would have spared it all the embarrassment. How flatfooted and unaware of the Bush team to walk into this situation. John Podesta or Dee Dee Myers, two of former President Bill Clinton's handlers, would have known better.
But this attitude reflects an inconsistency. Involvement tends to mean politicization. And what the guardians in the Senate are saying is that the White House failed to politicize the process sufficiently.
Yet just a few years ago, some of the same lawmakers were arguing the opposite in another intelligence debate — that the Bush team had politicized things too much.
Then the issue was whether the Bush administration had pressured government agencies into manufacturing information that strengthened President George W. Bush's case for invading Iraq. Thus Snowe in 2003 before hearing testimony from Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet: "It's inconceivable to me that we cannot retrace the steps in this whole process and put all the pieces of the puzzle together."
Behind closed doors, she and fellow senators grilled Tenet on Bush's assertion that Saddam had gone to Africa looking for nuclear material. The damage caused by politicization, Snowe suggested, made her want to ask, "how confident in our intelligence we can be in the future."
And again, Snowe had a chorus, including Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon. "What my constituents are concerned about is, in effect, making political decisions and then in effect, looking to find facts that would support those political decisions. That's what I want to explore today."
Bureaucrats are not stones. Such criticism from Olympia hurt. And so, more importantly, has the prolonged war in Iraq. Any number of officials still turn in their suburban Virginia beds at night thinking about the fact that our troops didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad, Tikrit, or Sadr City.
Many, especially those who serve on teams like CFIUS, redoubled their efforts to do unbiased work. The message of the war to intelligence officials was that they must willfully shut out political "noise" and conduct their evaluations in a vacuum of objectivity.
Hence the studied silence in the DP World case. Officials in 14 agencies had to uncap a pen and sign off on the deal.
Rather than rushing the review, the staff at Treasury, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council spent more than 80 days looking at the transaction. It was not their job to listen to opinion polls or respond to the fact that the country is gripped by the worst immigration jitters since the days of Ross Perot. It was to determine whether the DP World transaction conformed to existing rules and precedent, and to do so, when possible, without bothering the president.
Imagine, for a moment, that one of the numerous Dubai-influenced lobbyists of Washington had asked him to haul various assistant secretaries from Cabinet departments into the Oval Office for early feedback on how the Dubai deal was coming along. Such an action would have been far more problematic than anything in the Dubai debate right now. But Bush didn't do that because his own staff protected him and the process. The ignorance for which he is being excoriated may be the ignorance of integrity.
This is not to say that the White House managed this perfectly, or that 2008 isn't the year for a Democratic president, or that the CFIUS process doesn't need reform.
As James Woolsey, CIA director under Clinton, told me yesterday, CFIUS emphasizes approval of discrete products more than broad processes: "We need to tweak it so we can apply it to ports and not only to things like night-vision devices," he said.
The point, in any case, is simple: Olympia and other demigods — get your message straight. Either you want a politicized process, or a depoliticized one. Even a force as elevated as the U.S. Senate can't have both.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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