The Situation: Friday, March 10
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.
The next Dubai port storm?
Sen. John McCain is one of the potential '08 candidates speaking at the SRLC in Memphis this weekend.
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Posted: 5:15 p.m. ET
It looks like U.S. container terminals will not be taken over by a company based in the United Arab Emirates after all. But it turns out other sensitive dock work has been contracted to a Dubai firm for almost a year.
Inchcape Shipping Services, whose owners are located in Dubai, confirmed to CNN that they are "responsible for providing all the logistics requirements of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships in ports throughout... the Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility, covering 27 countries in the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea and East Africa region."
But retired Navy Captain Alec Fraser tells CNN he often docked his Aegis cruiser at ports in the Middle East to take on food, fuel, and other supplies, and the Navy has protections in place.
"All supplies are inspected prior to getting near a ship (as opposed to 5 percent of containers in the US) and as the stuff is loaded," he said. "Loaded by [US Navy] sailors -- not stevedores."
Fraser says that thanks to protocols instituted after the USS Cole was attacked in 2001, even if terrorists learned the docking schedule from a local stevedore, he believes "the chance of a small boat getting nearby a US Navy ship is almost impossible."
The Morning Grind
Posted: 9:50 a.m. ET
'Talking in Memphis'
Even before the first vote is cast, a prominent GOP Senator is calling into question the results of a straw poll that will be taken this weekend to gauge the political appeal of potential Republican candidates considering a run for the White House in 2008.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) told the Grind he believes the poll -- that will be conducted by The Hotline at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- is "a rigged deal" and should not serve as a barometer to determine who might be the best candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.
"Frist is bussing people in," Lott said, referring to Senate Majority Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), whose political organization is working to ensure he wins this unscientific early test of election viability. "These are not real delegates. These are people being bussed in to produce the results. It is a rigged deal. It doesn't matter."
Lott's preemptive strike on Frist is not surprising, given that the two Senators have been estranged since December 2002. That is when Frist announced he would run for Majority Leader after Lott came under fire for declaring the U.S. would have avoided "all of these problems" if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Lott tried to apologize for the remark made at Thurmond's birthday party, but public pressure forced him to step down as GOP leader just as Republicans were weeks away from taking back control of the Senate.
And Lott indicated to the Grind earlier this week that he would support Sen. John McCain for the GOP nomination should the Arizona Senator run for president in 2008.
"Lott is plotting his revenge for four years now," said a Frist confidante. "He is not interested in promoting John McCain. He is more interested in taking pot shots at Bill Frist."
A Frist political advisor added, "Memphis is closer to Little Rock, Arkansas than Nashville, Tennessee, and I don't see Senator Lott complaining that (Arkansas) Governor (Mike) Huckabee (R) has an advantage. Straw polls are much like early caucuses, they test early organizational ability and to criticize someone for that is silly."
It is expected that about 1800 people will vote in the straw poll after hearing from a half dozen Republicans considering a run for president. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg described the conference as an early cattle call for 2008 hopefuls and noted that the straw poll might help boost some potential candidates, but it could also severely damage home state favorite Frist's prospects should he not win convincingly.
"It will create expectations," said Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report and columnist for Roll Call. "It could boost some hopefuls and it could be a bump in the road for others.
"A great performance could boost Frist's position and resurrect his campaign, while a poor performance would only confirm what most of the insiders have been thinking for some time, which is that he simply does not have as much pizzazz to win the nomination," Rothenberg added.
Several Southern Republicans tell the Grind that the key to winning over attendees this weekend is to present a clear conservative vision and agenda without criticizing President Bush.
"President Bush is still pretty solid in the South," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia). "Obviously, folks are not happy with some things that are happening. Iraq is not going exactly like everybody wants it to go, the Dubai situation, but as far as distancing themselves I don't think that is an issue as is promoting some of his ideas to a point."
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) are scheduled to speak today, while Sens. George Allen (R-Virginia), Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) Huckabee and Frist are on tomorrow's program. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman will also deliver remarks today focused on the 2006 midterm elections. Mehlman will also show a video to the conference -- also available at www.rnc.org -- that takes a direct shot at Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is not ceding the City of Memphis to Republicans. The DNC released an opposition research memo yesterday criticizing the six prospective GOP candidates, and Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Bob Tuke will hold a 12 p.m. ET news conference at B.B. King's Blues Club to "highlight the failure of Republicans to adequately protect our nation's ports and their obstruction of efforts by Democrats to improve our nation's homeland security." A mobile billboard will be driving Memphis' streets with the message that "America's Security is America's Business."
Back in Washington, President Bush will not have to pull his veto pen out of the drawer now that United Arab Emirates owned Dubai Ports World has voluntarily agreed to turn over domestic port operations in six locations to a U.S. entity. In a rare sign of unity, Congressional Democrats and Republicans publicly opposed DP World's take over of the six ports, angering Bush who vowed to veto any legislation that would have prevented the deal from moving forward. Edward Bilkey, DP World's chief operating officer, said the decision to "transfer fully" the cargo terminal operations was made to preserve "the strong relationship between the United Arab Emirates and the United States."
This morning, the President faces a roomful of reporters when he delivers a 9:40 a.m. ET speech to the National Newspaper Association at the Wyndham Washington Hotel. At 11:15 a.m. ET, Bush meets with the President of Peru and two hours later is joined by First Lady Laura Bush in a meeting with "organizations that support the U.S. military."
Political Hot Topics
Posted: 9:50 a.m. ET
NEW LOW IN AP-IPSOS: More and more people, particularly Republicans, disapprove of President Bush's performance, question his character and no longer consider him a strong leader against terrorism, according to an AP-Ipsos poll documenting one of the bleakest points of his presidency... The poll suggests that most Americans wonder whether Bush is up to the job. The survey, conducted Monday through Wednesday of 1,000 people, found that just 37 percent approve of his overall performance. That is the lowest of his presidency... On issues, Bush's approval rating declined from 39 percent to 36 percent for his handling of domestic affairs and from 47 percent to 43 percent on foreign policy and terrorism. His approval ratings for dealing with the economy and Iraq held steady, but still hovered around 40 percent. AP via Yahoo! News: Bush Approval Rating Falls to New Low
DPW WILL SELL OFF U.S. OPS: A United Arab Emirates-based maritime company at the center of a furious controversy over port security bowed to pressure from Congress yesterday and announced that it will sell off its U.S. operations to an American owner. The announcement, issued by Dubai Ports World Chief Operating Officer Edward H. Bilkey, came hours after House and Senate GOP leaders bluntly told President Bush that Congress would kill the U.S. portions of the company's $6.8 billion acquisition of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O), which has operations at six major U.S. ports, including New York and Baltimore. Washington Post: Dubai Firm to Sell U.S. Port Operations
PARTY AT THE PEABODY: There are some parallels between this weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference and stories about Hannibal's march across the Alps. Both involve high levels of strategy and an army of elephants. The GOP's three-day affair charges ahead today at The Peabody and will include outreach, fund-raising and other tactical sessions for delegates, and a Saturday straw poll, generally considered a measure of a candidate's potential success in future elections. "We're coming together to address the future of the party," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "It'll be interesting to see the range of issues discussed. We'll get a real flavor of the November elections." Frist, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other presidential hopefuls will get 15 minutes apiece to address delegates at a conference, which will be equal parts pep rally and auditions for national office. Memphis Commercial Appeal: GOP testing the springboard here
7-SENATOR SURVEILLANCE PANEL GOES TO WH: The new seven-senator intelligence subcommittee created to review the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program had its first White House briefing yesterday and is scheduled to visit the National Security Agency's headquarters Monday to gather additional information, according to congressional and administration officials. Those who participated in the briefing, which lasted more than two hours, were close-mouthed about the details. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released a statement yesterday evening describing the meeting as "extremely productive and educational for the members" of what he called the subcommittee on the oversight of the terrorist surveillance program. Washington Post: Panel on Eavesdropping Is Briefed by White House
U.S. WILL SHUT DOWN ABU GHRAIB: The American military said Thursday that within the next several months it planned to relocate all its detainees from Abu Ghraib prison, the sprawling penal compound west of Baghdad that became notorious throughout the world after photographs were made public of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners there. The prison will then be turned over to the Iraqi government, American military officials said. New York Times: U.S. to Abandon Abu Ghraib and Move Prisoners to a New Center
UP TO IRAQI TROOPS TO DEFUSE CIVIL WAR: The U.S. military will rely primarily on Iraq's security forces to put down a civil war in that country if one breaks out, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told lawmakers yesterday. Sectarian violence in Iraq has reached a level unprecedented since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and is now eclipsing the insurgency as the chief security threat there, said Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, who appeared with Rumsfeld. "The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the... Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to," Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee when pressed to explain how the United States intended to respond should Iraq descend wholesale into internecine strife. Washington Post: U.S. Sets Plans to Aid Iraq in Civil War
JUDICIARY CMTE. APPROVES AZ-MEXICO FENCE: The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed yesterday to erect new fencing along parts of the Arizona-Mexico border but stopped far short of a House proposal to build more fences over a wider area. Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a member of the committee, pushed through the amendment to the massive immigration reform legislation being debated by the Senate. The Kyl proposal calls for 200 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers along Arizona's border with Mexico, but no new fences in California, New Mexico and Texas. "It will make it much more difficult for smugglers and illegal aliens to gain entry, significantly reduce crime rates in border towns, and preserve fragile desert lands and archeological resources which are impacted by illegal pedestrian and vehicular traffic," he said. Washington Times: Senate panel OKs new border fencing in Arizona
KY GOV. TREATED FOR POTENTIALLY DEADLY BLOOD CLOT: Gov. Ernie Fletcher was recovering last night after most of a potentially deadly blood clot was removed from a vein between his chest and upper left arm, doctors said. Fletcher probably will remain hospitalized for two days while the rest of the clot is dissolved, doctors said. "He's in good spirits, and we're just very thankful for all the great care and all the thoughts and prayers of everyone out there," Fletcher's wife, Glenna Fletcher, said after the procedure... The blood clot is the latest health setback for Fletcher, who was released from the hospital March 1 after 18 days for removal of his gallbladder and treatment of pancreatitis and a blood infection. Louisville Courier-Journal: Fletcher Treated for Blood Clot
TN SENATE FOLLOWING SD'S LEAD ON ABORTION: Abortion foes won an overwhelming victory in the state Senate yesterday and pushed Tennessee into a national political fray over the thorniest of issues: a woman's right to choose pitted against the rights of unborn children. The bipartisan 24-9 vote is the first step toward officially amending the state constitution so that it places a woman's right to an abortion in the hands of the General Assembly - a move that the Republican strategists behind the effort hope will lead to greater restrictions or even an outright ban on abortion... His measure - formally titled Senate Joint Resolution 127 - calls for a statewide constitutional referendum in 2010 to ratify new language for the Tennessee Constitution declaring: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion." Nashville Tennessean: Senate Moves to Control Abortion
JACK'S BEEMER: One of [Jack Abramoff's] most conspicuous indulgences was his 2002 BMW, fully loaded with more than $48,000 worth of custom work. The 745Li sedan was customized by Ai Design of Tuckahoe, N.Y., as a sort of mobile office for Mr. Abramoff, who at one time had a driver for it so he could accommodate a heavy workload. Invoices offer a look inside the tinted windows, a $450 addition that was the cheapest part of the job... Mr. Abramoff spent $19,995 for a "custom-built, 15.2-inch-wide screen and manual flip-down video monitor," an invoice says... For $7,390, he added a hands-free cellphone system, with a special antenna amplifier to boost the signal, and a docking station for his laptop built into the back of the right front seat. The system was configured to use the overhead screen and could take commands from a wireless keyboard. Mr. Abramoff also paid $6,495 for seat-back tables. New York Times: How a Big Wheel Outfitted Four of Them
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