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The Situation: Wednesday, March 1

Editor's Note: The Situation Report is a running log of dispatches, quotes, links and behind-the-scenes notes filed by the correspondents and producers of CNN's Washington Bureau. Watch "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer on CNN 4 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. ET weekdays.

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The series of e-mails released today were provided to Congress by Michael Brown.

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Posted: 5:00 p.m. ET
From The Situation Online Producers

Politics involved in Katrina cruise ship contract?

Did Florida Governor Jeb Bush improperly line up a $236 million government contract for Carnival Cruise Lines after Hurricane Katrina? That's what Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) is accusing (PDF)external link. Waxman released a series of e-mails (PDF) today that were among many provided to Congress from former FEMA director Michael Brown. Along with correspondence from Brown, those e-mails include Bush's communications with Carnival advertising executive Ric Davis, who also happens to be a major political donorexternal link to the Republican party.

The contract to house Hurricane Katrina evacuees on Carnival Cruise ships has been criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as being wasteful, as the ships sat half empty on the Gulf Coast for several weeks.

A Bush spokesperson called Waxman's accusations "completely unfounded" and they will be responding to the letter. (View the e-mails in PDF form)

Customs - Dubai ports deal

Posted: 2:20 p.m. ET
From Justine Redman, CNN America Bureau

A senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday there is no truth to the allegation that the agency had security concerns about Dubai Ports World taking over leases of terminals in some U.S. ports prior to the move being approved by the U.S. government.

Assistant Commissioner Jayson Ahern said Wednesday, "I was the individual who cleared on this process within Customs and Border Protection. I reviewed all the material, and there was no derogatory or any hesitation on our part for moving forward with supporting this decision."

Charges that the agency's concerns had been ignored by the Department of Homeland Security were raised Tuesday by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. "We have been told by three or four people good sources that ... Customs did an initial review and also said they have no way of telling whether Dubai Ports World would meet the necessary security measures," Sen. Schumer told reporters.

Ahern told CNN his staff has contacted Sen. Schumer's office, and that the Senator, "was not able to produce any document or reliable source," to support his claim.

Ahern made his comments in response to a question asked at an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Morning Grind

Posted: 9:55 a.m. ET
From Mark Preston, CNN Political Unit

Linking immigration to national security

For the past week, voters in the Oklahoma City area have seen images of Osama bin Laden sweep across their television screens as the commentator assures viewers that Congressional candidate Mary Fallin believes a major front in the war on terrorism is along the U.S. border.

In Texas, Republican Congressional candidate Van Taylor has run two television advertisements since the first of the year that highlight his military service in Iraq -- experience he claims will help him secure the nations' borders if elected. And in the last three weeks, Congressional candidates in California and Florida have highlighted the need to "strengthen our borders" or "crack down on illegal immigration" in their own television commercials.

A common theme is emerging in the midterm elections as candidates seek to link the issue of national security to the debate over how to address illegal immigration.

"The early returns show this is going to be a dominate theme ... and this trend is not limited to border states," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, CNN's consultant on television advertising spending.

So far this year, Fallin and Van Taylor have been the most aggressive candidates in seeking to tie the two issues together, but Tracey points out that connecting illegal immigration to national security was discussed by candidates in the 2005 off-year elections. Since June 2005, Tracey estimates that $2.8 million has been spent on television commercials promoting this theme, primarily by Republican candidates.

In the Fallin commercialexternal link, soon after viewers see the al Qaeda leader's image, a five word message in bold black letters is seared onto a simple white backdrop, "Mary Fallin: Secure Our Borders."

Fallin, the current GOP lieutenant governor seeking to replace retiring Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Oklahoma), explains in a message posted on her campaign website that the commercial "deals with one of the most important issues facing America today -- national security and the threat of terrorism.

"Effectively dealing with the threat of terrorism means securing our borders, taking the fight to them and giving our troops the tools they need to finish the job," she writes.

Denise Northrup, Fallin's campaign manager, tells the Grind that so far they have received very positive feedback about the ad.

"It is an important issue to the campaign and to Americans," Northrup said. "That is why we felt it is important to have that as an element of the campaign."

Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said she expects to see more candidates, particularly Republicans, begin discussing the immigration issue as the year progresses.

"This is what conservative Republicans talk about: faith, family values and protecting the borders," said Walter, a CNN political analyst. "The question is, 'How does this play in a general election?'"

But if Republican candidates do begin discussing the immigration issue, then they will be forced to declare whether they support or oppose President Bush's controversial guest worker program that has been panned by some conservatives from within his own party. In fact, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) and conservative activist Bay Buchanan are traveling around the country rallying support against such a program in their "Secure America Now" tour.

In other midterm election news, the U.S. Supreme Court today will delve into the controversy over a Texas voter redistricting plan promoted by Republicans, including Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), CNN's Bill Mears reports. The measure led to the 2004 ouster of five Democratic incumbents in Congress, and sparked a bitter partisan battle.

Underlying the appeals are claims that the Texas Congressional map unfairly reduced minority voting strength. However, the justices are more likely to consider narrow legal arguments: whether courts can fashion a proper remedy when partisan gerrymandering is judged excessive; and whether states can remake their congressional map twice in the same decade when a valid plan already exists. Two hours of oral arguments in the four consolidated appeals will be held in a rare afternoon session, a signal of the urgency to resolve the dispute, Mears reports. The court has the power to declare the current Texas plan unconstitutional and throw it back either to lower state or federal courts, or to the state legislature to fashion a new congressional map.

It is unclear whether a ruling from the court -- expected by late June -- would affect the November elections.

New poll numbers on the New Orleans mayoral election indicate that a majority of current residents, 54 percent, approve of the way Mayor Ray Nagin (D) handled the response to Hurricane Katrina, but less than one in five said they definitely plan to vote to re-elect him.

Nineteen percent said they will definitely vote for Nagin's re-election, 31 percent said they will consider voting for him and 44 percent said they will not vote for him, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of New Orleans residents currently living in the city. The majority of his support, the poll indicates, is among black residents.

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D), who is expected to be Nagin's most formidable challenger, demonstrated stronger room for growth among undecided voters than the incumbent mayor. Eighteen percent of current residents said they would definitely vote for Landrieu, 45 percent indicated they would consider voting for him and 29 percent said they would definitely vote against him. The poll surveyed only current New Orleans residents, while those who are temporarily living in other areas will be allowed to vote in the April 22 election.

On Capitol Hill today, the Senate is expected to approve an extension of the USA Patriot Act, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will address a Joint Session of Congress at 11 a.m.

And President Bush caught his traveling press corps off-guard when he made a quick detour to Afghanistan as he began his four day trip to India and Pakistan.

"One of the messages I want to say to the people of Afghanistan, it's our country's pleasure and honor to be involved with the future of this country," Bush said at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "People all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan. I hope that the people of Afghanistan understand that as democracy takes hold, you're inspiring others."

Political Hot Topics

Posted: 9:55 a.m. ET
From Stephen Bach, CNN Washington Bureau

BUSH DROPS IN ON KARZAI: U.S. President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, his first to the country where U.S. forces ousted the Taliban following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a five-hour unannounced stopover en route to India and Pakistan. A group of low-flying helicopters carried Bush and his entourage from Bagram Air Base, the main center for U.S. troops where Air Force One landed, to the capital Kabul, where he was received by Karzai. CNN: Bush makes first Afghan visitexternal link

WINTER OF GOP DISCONTENT: The signs of GOP discontent have been building in the past few months. Dissident Republicans in Congress forced Bush to sign a measure banning torture of detainees despite his initial veto threat, blocked renewal of the USA Patriot Act until their civil liberties concerns were addressed and pressured the White House into accepting legislation on its secret eavesdropping program. By the time the port deal came to light, the uprising was no longer limited to dissidents. "We simply want to participate and aren't going to be PR flacks when they need us," Rep. Mark Foley said. "We all have roles. We have oversight. When you can't answer your constituents when they have legitimate questions... we can't simply do it on trust." Washington Post: GOP Unease Spreads to Security Issuesexternal link

SENS. CONCERNED OVER DPW ISRAEL BOYCOTT: Senate Democrats seized on a report that the parent company of state-owned Dubai Ports World honors an Arab boycott of Israel, saying the United States should not be rewarding companies tied to discrimination against a major ally. "This boycott not only violates at least the spirit of U.S. law," said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, "it is inconsistent with everything we believe in as Americans." A company official appearing at a Senate hearing acknowledged the boycott but said the firm worked with all customers at its facilities around the world. New York Times: New Concerns on Port Deal Are Raised in Congressexternal link

DPW NOT "ACQUIRING" OR "TAKING OVER" U.S. PORTS, SAYS C.O.O.: The head of DP World yesterday sought to assure senators that his Dubai-based company's takeover of terminal operations at six U.S. ports would pose no threat and would even enhance U.S. security. "We are not 'acquiring' or 'taking over' U.S. ports, as some people claimed," Edward H. Bilkey, chief operating officer of the company, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday. "We are very concerned with the security of the U.S. and actually are a great partner with them." But his words failed to reassure some senators. "These port operators are intricately involved in port security," Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, told him. "I think this whole deal is fraught with danger, and I'm going to oppose" it. "I think this proposal is nuts," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat. Washington Times: Dubai firm's chief tries to assuage concernsexternal link

DOMESTIC SPYING MAY HAVE GREATER SCOPE THAN PREVIOUSLY REVEALED: Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appeared to suggest yesterday that the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance operations may extend beyond the outlines that the president acknowledged in mid-December. In a letter yesterday to senators in which he asked to clarify his Feb. 6 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales also seemed to imply that the administration's original legal justification for the program was not as clear-cut as he indicated three weeks ago. At that appearance, Gonzales confined his comments to the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, saying that President Bush had authorized it "and that is all that he has authorized." Washington Post: Gonzales Seeks to Clarify Testimony on Spyingexternal link

RAISING "FEES," NOT "TAXES": While President George W. Bush is adamantly against raising taxes, he's increasingly comfortable with imposing billions of dollars in new government fees, as the airline, commodities and shipping industries have discovered. Bush's 2007 budget proposal would raise more than $47 billion over the next five years by imposing, raising or extending expiring fees on everything from airline tickets to oil drilling to commodity transactions to ships passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway. "It's a way for the administration to get around its `we'll never-raise-taxes' attitude," said Stan Collender, managing director of the Washington office of Financial Dynamics, a business-consulting firm. Bush won't suffer politically from what is essentially a tax increase, because he has backed extending even larger tax cuts, said Grover Norquist, a prominent anti-tax activist. Bloomberg: Bush, an Opponent of Raising Taxes, Proposes $47 Bln in Feesexternal link

HAWAII BRACES FOR BIRD FLU: The plans, detailed and terrifying, are for the worst-case scenario. One section of this city's bustling, tourist-filled airport could be converted into an emergency quarantine station for patients suspected of carrying avian influenza... As avian flu continues to spread across the globe, health officials are paying close attention to Hawaii, the nation's gateway to Asia and the state where some experts believe the much-feared H5N1 virus could first be detected on American soil. In what is being seen as a model for the rest of the U.S., Hawaii has become the first state in the country to establish an airport surveillance program to test visibly ill passengers for avian flu, many arriving from nations where the virus already has proved deadly. Chicago Tribune: Hawaii on front lines for bird fluexternal link

ANNA NICOLE'S DAY IN COURT: Dressed in a black ensemble, she sat on the south side of the marble courtroom beneath a frieze of Solomon and other ancient lawgivers and alongside scores of other spectators at the Supreme Court. But this dark-eyed, longhaired blonde was no ordinary spectator. From the moment Anna Nicole Smith arrived at the columned building in a dark sport- utility vehicle Tuesday, she was trailed and scrutinized... Outside the court, photographers swarmed around Smith. She wore a two-piece dress that fell to the knee, with dark stockings that did not completely cover a tattoo on one ankle. Once in the courtroom where cameras cannot go, with the justices ready to hear a morning of arguments, the 1993 Playmate of the Year was just one more face, barely perceptible amid about 300 visitors. USA Today: Supreme Court hears Anna Nicole Smith's caseexternal link

JACK WANTED TO DRILL IN ISRAEL: Lobbyist Jack Abramoff worked with Russian partners to establish a company that envisioned a high-risk plan to drill for oil in Israel, which he hoped would bring him riches and reshape the Middle East, according to documents and his former lobbying partners. The oil drilling plan, which has not been reported among Abramoff's many other schemes, casts new light on the scope of the disgraced lobbyist's dealings and the possible reach of the federal investigation into links between his clients, business partners, and members of Congress. Documents reviewed by the Globe show that in November 2001 Abramoff sought a banker's letter vouching that his newly created company, First Gate Resources, could undertake a $5 million project. The letter was addressed to the then-Israeli oil commissioner. Boston Globe: Abramoff pushed plan to drill for oil in Israelexternal link

"DRAFT DONALD":external link The head of New York's Independence Party has launched a Web site aiming to draft Donald Trump into the 2008 presidential race as a third-party candidate. Party Chairman Frank MacKay says he recently met with Trump to tell him about the draft plan. MacKay says the mega-developer was flattered and intrigued by the idea but noncommittal about running for president. Trump considered a third-party run for the White House six years ago as the candidate of the Ross Perot-inspired Reform Party, but eventually decided against it. AP via Yahoo! News: Draft the Donald! Campaign Effort Beginsexternal link

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