The Dubai Ports Purchase: National Insecurity, Imported or Homegrown?

Americans are in a fever about possible “Arab control” of mainland ports along both coasts of the United States. The battle has followed entirely predictable lines: on the one hand, those favoring the Dubai Ports purchase point out that this is all part and parcel of being part of the international world economy, and there’s no evidence that the transaction and the new owners might in any way compromise the internal security of the U.S. mainland. On the other hand, foes of the deal shout that the Arabs will be tightening their grip on the nation’s windpipe and legions of terrorists and terror weapons might be stowed in the containers that land in America each day by the hundreds of thousand.

Back in the early 1970s, at the time of the oil embargo, there was even greater thundering here about the Arab grip on the American economy. Never a day went by but that the newspaper cartoons would show burnous-clad sheikhs chuckling fiendishly as they choked off America’s gas pumps. Today’s row over the ports is tepid by comparison.

The whole storm is ludicrous. When it comes to America’s national security and penetration of the mainland by foreign capital, there are bigger worries. This very week, the week of the Chicago Auto Show, the widely read magazine Consumer Reports lists the ten safest cars sold in America this year. They are all Japanese, mostly Hondas, and mostly made in U.S.-based plants put up after Japanese and other foreign automakers were welcomed in by the U.S.A. thirty years ago, partly as a way of undercutting the Union of Autoworkers. This same month the headlines here have been full of stories about the collapse of the top two U.S. automakers–General Motors and Ford–in the face of foreign competition. Well over 100,000 American workers are to lose their jobs, thus vastly increasing U.S. insecurity. Hundreds of thousands more U.S. workers have already lost their jobs to India, China, Mexico, and other low-wage nations because that is the way American business, backed by the U.S. government, wants it.

After all, “national security” means Americans’ physical security and ability to enjoy liberty and pursue happiness. Since both Democrats and Republicans in government have claimed wrongly that this security will be enhanced by exporting jobs, they should be in the dock for increasing national insecurity. The fact that the fruits of these exported jobs come back in the form of commodities reimported to the U.S.A. in containers that might or might not be handled by foreign-owned stevedoring and port management companies is a miniscule issue by comparison, far less serious even than the illnesses caused to Americans living near the ports who have to endure the pollution caused by the diesel fumes from thousands of large 18-wheel trucks lined up each day to haul the containers away.

Worries about port security back in the 50s and 60s were not aimed at Arabs, but at Communists and labor unions. Elia Kazan’s famous movie, On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, had the dock-control wars between unions and mobsters as a major theme.

Back in the Second World War, the U.S. Navy had port security as an obvious major concern. This was a time when special cargoes of war matériel for the planned invasion of Europe were being dispatched to Great Britain and to North Africa. The Navy was worried not only about sabotage, but also about work stoppages and strikes–particularly the efforts of Harry Bridges, the Australian-born union organizer with close ties to the Communist Party, who had led the 1934 general strike on the docks in San Francisco.

The Justice Department was busy trying to deport Bridges when he showed up on the East Coast in 1942, traveling between Boston and New York, encouraging the dockworkers to abandon the mob-infested International Longshoremen’s Association and join his International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union.

The Navy men fixed up meetings with top gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano to plot out the logistics of what the Navy was so eager to get–namely, a Mob order to dockland to cooperate with the anti-sabotage (which was also code for union organizing) effort. Luciano told Lansky to contact Johnny “Cockeyed” Dunn, the boss of the Hudson River docks and Luciano’s strongman in the International Longshoremen’s Association; the Camarda brothers, overlords of the Brooklyn waterfront; Mikey Lascari, Luciano’s boyhood pal who handled the New Jersey operations; Frank “the Hands” Costello, Luciano’s political henchman; and Albert Anastasia, the CEO of Murder, Inc., who would take care of anyone who got out of line. “You go up,” Luciano told Lansky, “and mention my name and in the meantime I will have the word out and you won’t have no difficulties.”

Not for the last time there was a confluence of interest between criminal and intelligence organizations to crush radical unions. We will see the same story repeated in Shanghai and in postwar Italy and France. In abetting crime/drug cartels and crushing independent political movements or unions, the CIA and its forebears never hesitated for a moment to make common cause with criminals.

Bridges’ planned strike was duly broken by Mob goons under the supervision of Lanza and Albert Anastasia, a man Luciano described as being “willing to kill anybody who came to mind that he got mad about.” When Bridges showed up at an organizing rally in New York City a few weeks later, Lanza handled matters personally. “I had a fight with him,” recalled Joey Lanza. “I belted him, and that was that.” Between 1942 and 1946, there were twenty-six unsolved murders of labor organizers and dockworkers, presumed murdered and dumped in the river by the Mafia, working in collusion with Naval Intelligence.

On the larger issue of control of the docks and national security, if one had to draw a balance sheet on who benefited the most from the Naval Intelligence/Mob partnership, the answer would surely be the gangsters. In the first place, the partnership proved fatal to honest labor organizing and left union locals on the Eastern seaboard, along with the ILA, ravaged by gangsterism and corruption. And the alliance with the gangsters established by Naval Intelligence led the way to the postwar alliance between the CIA and the Mob. Luciano was enlisted to persuade the Italian and French mafias to attack the powerful dockland Communists in those two countries. The payoff for the Mob was freedom to import cocaine and heroin into the U.S.A. In the short and the long run, that contributed to national insecurity in a very, very big way. There’s no blaming the Arabs for that one. The trouble was homegrown.

Footnote: the saga of the US Navy’s involvement with the Mob, and the deal between the OSS–later CIA–and Luciano is laid out in detail in Whiteout:The CIA, Drugs and the Press, a very fine book by Cockburn and St Clair, which recently hit the charts as the number 5 bestseller in Italy under the title Il Libro Nero Della Polvere Bianca (Nuovi Mondi).

The Fall of Mohu:
Demolisher Says Her Son Did the Right Thing When He Knocked Down Kay Graham’s Beloved Martha’s Vineyard Home. On to Monticello!

My account of Bill Graham’s leveling of his mother, Katharine Graham’s big house in Martha’s Vineyard, described here last week, has elicited some sharp criticism from the man who actually supervised the leveling. John Abrams says this was no orgy of destruction by an angry son who saw the shade of his powerful mother shimmering above the rambling mansion from his own home on the property and bellowed for the bulldozers to roll. To the contrary, Abrams cliams, this was a considerate act of “de-construction” in which a white- elephant inheritance was taken delicately apart , its timbers, doors and windows taken off to storage against the day that they will be used in low-income projects elsewhere in Martha’s Vineyard. On the site of the old house, stone chimneys remain as landmarks, with the square footage that once echoed to the chink of Martini glasses and the laughter of the East Coast elites now sown with native grasses. B. Graham, Abrams argues, deserves the highest praise for footing the bill (paid in large part to Abrams and his South Mountain Company) for “de-construction”.

The Abrams line was faithfully echoed, with ample quotation of Abrams by Phyllis Meras in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette for July 1, 2005. Meras achieved the amazing feat, in a 2000-word piece about the leveling of one of the island’s best known historic homes, of never once addressing the matter of exactly why a son should suddenly decide to knock down the house his mother left to him, and never once citing opinions other than Mr Abrams’. The article was actually awarded a prize by some foolish Massachusetts organization.

Suppose that when G.W.H. and Barbara Bush finally depart this world, they leave Kennebunkport to G.W. and Laura, who promptly whistle up the demolition crew and tell them to level the place. Will the local press content itself with paeans to W’s selfless act of homage to the poor of Maine and Natural Beauty Restored? Probably.

Maybe, in the not too distant future, low income structures in Martha’s Vineyard will be enhanced by Mohu’s vertical grain doug fir flooring, thick canyon red quarry tiles, yellow pine bead board, plus lighting fixtures and hardware. Abrams says that’s the way it’s going to be. It seems unlikely to me, though I can imagine this salvage stock being sold off to rich people restoring their homes and the proceeds donated to a housing charity. Here are some of the exchanges between me and Abrams.

Alex Cockburn,

I’m writing about your Feb 25, 2006 piece called Fall of the House of Mohu. Sometimes, when someone gets something so remarkably wrong, as you have about this, it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start at the beginning.

As the Vineyard Gazette reported in a three page spread (hardly a “tiny reference” as you called it) Katherine Graham’s evocative 10,000 square feet 1920’s summer house sat empty after her death. It sprawled across a spectacular knoll above the Vineyard Sound. Bill Graham wondered what to do with it. He thought it would be a tribute to the land and the view from the Sound to “undeverlop” the spot but he wished the house could be put to good purpose. He called me and asked me to look at it. He wondered if it could be cut into pieces, moved, and made into (desperately needed) affordable housing. Due to the location and the construction of the house, that wasn’t feasible, but the house was built from fine, sturdy materials which could be re-used. The trouble, I told him, was that it would be incredibly labor intensive and expensive to de-construct. I suggested that he pay to do that, and that he donate the materials to the non-profit Island Affordable Housing Fund. They could be stored and used in future Vineyard affordable housing projects.

After hearing the estimated cost for de-construction, Bill, to my utter amazement, agreed. So the job was done. All those involved took great pleasure in saving these historic materials and putting them to best use. Today, they are neatly stacked in a barn, awaiting use in a project now on the drawing boards.

There was no ‘ferocious destruction”, only skillful hard work by committed deconstruction experts who saved everything that could possibly be saved–which turned out to be almost everything! They left no “splinters and rubble.” There were no bulldozers, except the one that re-graded the undeveloped site in preparation for planting native grasses that would make it part of the surrounding meadow. The driver carefully worked around the two beautiful stone chimneys that we left standing as reminders of the past.

That was it. Whole story. A poetic and positive story–entirely different from your bleak and negative portrayal

John Abrams

AC to Abrams

Hi John, .. To me there is a big question as to why he wanted to wipe ma’s house off face of earth, but I’m happy to publish your letter,

Abrams to AC


Publishing the letter would be fine, or even better a statement that you’ve now been better informed, and the Mohu de-construction was not at all what it seemed to be, and was, in fact, a very good thing. Bill didn’t want to wipe out ma’s house (in fact he used a few choice items that came from there for renovations to his own house); he wanted to make sense out of something that no longer did. What would you do with an empty 10,000 SF summer house on your property? Keep maintaining it so the critters would have a comfy place to nest?

All over the country, in desirable places with whopping real estate values, we have an ugly tear-down phenomenon whereby fine old buildings are trashed to be replaced by McMansions. This was the opposite: building not trashed–all parts saved–and building replaced by open space. Not bad, huh? Man puts money where mouth is. Now that’s a story.

AC to Abrams

Well of course John, one would rather expect you to say all that, given your own role. Could you tell me more about the Affordable Housing Fund; what’s it done in recent years? Presumably, affordable houses,. Where? How many? What cost? Are there annual reports available. Presumably it’s a tax exempt.

I don’t quite understand your statement that BG didn’t want to “wipe out” his mother’s house. Isn’t that exactly what, for better or worse, he did? “Making sense” seems , in your context, to come down to demolition.

What would I do with a 10,000 sq foot summer home on my property? I can think of scores of possible worthy projects, starting with a low income co-op using existing structure, or an alternative school, or a hospice, or a retirement home for all the drunk writers and retired journalists on the island., (some of them perhaps relicts of the Graham empire), a writers’ colony, at one end where they could drink and a bin at the other where they could dry out.

Isn’t it rather a curious application of energy to spend a great deal of money and time taking down a large soundly built structure in a pleasing situation, taking away the lumber, windows, doors, etc , storing them , against the time that smaller structures can be built, thus reducing elsewhere the “open space” you delightedly invoke. Curious, that is, unless one concludes that BG thought Mohu a burden for financial reasons, had no sentimental attachment to it (to put it mildly) and saw a fine way to get the whole place demolished, with the work and materials being treated as a charitable donation and taken off his taxes, also reducing his property tax burden on the total acreage at the same time.

Again, I find your pretense that Mohu was not “trashed”–ridiculous. If I inherited Monticello and shortly thereafter, with whatever exquisite care, took it down and carted all the various salvageable portions to a barn nearby to be used at some future time for the poor of Charlottesville, (with — as noted above — huge costs of said demolition being used by me as a tax deduction and thus paid for by the citizenry at large, ) I think I would rightly be accused of trashing, demolishing, tearing down, a fine historic building. I’m not putting Mohu on the same level as Monticello, but perhaps you can take my point. You speak glowingly of the “open space” created by the demolition for which you were presumably well paid. Who is enjoying this open space? B. Graham? The local flora and fauna? The bluefish out in the Sound? The public?

Best Alex

Abrams to AC

Alex – will tell you about the Fund. Lots of hard work, many successes, still learning plenty, presently continuing the work and sharing what we’ve discovered with many other communities which have the same set of problems.

Making sense, in my terms, means making best use given the situation, which in this case was de-construction. All those neat things that you said you’d do with an empty 10,000 SF summer house–hah, yeah that’s what you’d do with it on someone else’s property, right? And on yours? What have you done in the past with your empty 10,000 square foot summer houses? Easy for you to say what someone else should do, especially without knowledge of the circumstances or the subject, and to substitute making up the facts for learning them.

De-construction not curious at all. Especially not to the members of the national Building Materials Reuse Association ( Or to those who patronize the many used building material yards that have been starting up the last decade and providing good materials at low prices to those who need them. Or to the condition of our landfills, the recipients of the stunning tonnage of trashed material from building demolitions. Sadly, all too few wealthy people who are replacing houses are willing to pay the money to deconstruct rather than demolish. Bill Graham is not some kind of hero; just a guy willing to do the right thing in this case. Your assumption that he could take a tax deduction for the work and materials is dead wrong; his tax deduction, if he took it, could only be for the value of the materials salvaged, which is about 20% of the cost. Citizenry at large paid for that portion, just like we pay for your tax deduction on your mortgage interest. At least Bill’s tax deduction–if he took it–helps the poor, unlike yours.

Monticello? Well, if you do inherit it, and you don’t want it, and nobody wants to designate it a historic structure, and it’s not in a public place where it can sensibly be used for good public purpose, I think de-construction would be a fine way to deal with it, far better than demolishing. If it happens, let me know–we would be happy to make a reasonable profit doing that job, or to recommend someone more local. Fair warning though–it won’t be cheap.

The open space is on Bill’s property. He does not allow the public to romp around on it (we have a Land Bank that does an extraordinary job of providing managed open space for public access), but the public does use the water and the beach in front of the house site, so their view is now just a little nicer and less built-up.

Onward, John

AC to Abrams

Surely, the payment for your loving de-molition approached the value of the salvaged materials. BG could have simply donated money to low income housing .

I’m glad to hear that used material building yards in the North East are cheap. Out here in California they’re usually very pricey, as one might expect with old pine or redwood or doug fir casement windows, floorboards etc.. Building with old salvaged stuff very often turns out to be far more expensive (tho of course more attractive than buying stock stuff at Home Depot etc.) The clientele to be found in these salvage yards are usually fairly, or very, affluent folk intent on re-habbing their Victorians etc with the right stuff., not people looking to put up low-income housing.

Anyway, it’s edifying to hear the bottom line, that property is, after all, property and the low-income folk won’t be allowed”to romp around” on Mohu land, any more than the high-income folk can play tennis there. I can understand where you’re coming from, but how that MVG “journalist” can write an entire piece without once properly addressing the question of a son demolishing his mother’s well loved home surpasses belief. And believe me, there are people aside from me who think it was a very weird thing to do. Best Alex

Abrams to AC


I do want to respond to one thing. You say: “Building with old salvaged stuff very often turns out to be far more expensive (tho of course more attra tive than buying stock stuff at Home Depot etc. The clientele to be found in these salvage yards are usually fairly, or very, affluent folk intent on re-habbing their Victorians etc with the right stuff., not people looking to put up low-income housing.”

I know all about what you are talking about–it’s a part of my business–and some parts of your statement are true. But in this case I’m not talking about fancy materials salvaged from beneath Lake Superior and used to make the next Stradivarius. I’m talking about the people who patronize The Rebuilding Center ( in Portland Oregon (your coast). Go on, take a few minutes and look at the website these materials are being used to make desperately needed affordable housing for working people, and these materials will enhance the homes that they will soon own. Got a problem with that?

All best, John

PS: Like many other wealthy Vineyarders, BG has donated money to affordable housing, in addition to these materials.

So much for all that. Abrams is maybe a little behind the curve on the Rebuilding Center in north Portland, in an area now rapidly gentrifying with the poor mostly black inhabitants being pushed out. My impression is that a decade or so ago some big non-profits began putting some money into these plans for “sustainable” use of old materials for low income housing, but that the steam has somwhat gone out of the idea, as the big non-profits rush on to the next fashion. I have spent many, many hours and indeed many dollars in salvage yards in the Bay Area, and it’s very hard to imagine those expensive pieces of trim, of twenties mantle pieces and glass paneled doors ending up shoehorned into new, low income housing. When Kay Graham’s Mohu rises, in whatever components and rearrangements, elsewhere in Martha’s Vineyard, I look forward to a bulletin from John A.

Quail Down the Drain

From: george job <>
Subject: Re: Quail in War and Peace

I thoroughly enjoy the burnished style ALEXANDER COCKBURN displayed writing this piece. As always, he lends the reader his pointed emotion and its clever adaptation to earthly folly. Excellent!

I would add to the quail saga this addition:

The California quail have made home here in Sun City, and native hatch-lings, no larger than a ping pong ball, play covey catch up in early spring. Their plight, apparent by the clamor a concerned hen emits, is entrapment after falling through the storm sewer grates while following across the street. If one goes in, the others are sure to follow. Anton Chekhov’s ‘look of wonder’ posses the mother bird while Dad goes roof top displaying an uneasy hitch in his call.

What’s a retired carpenter to do but fetch “big blue” to remove the heavy egg crate grate and climb in.

My heated rescue exposed their inbred fear fostered by centuries of human cruelty. The scramble went on two hours; several escaped down the storm drain, never to be seen again. Today, I use plastic netting tied on with tie wraps at several locations to ward off the little creature’s early spring time demise. Hunting this bird for sport reveals a mischievous flaw underlining modern society’s disconnect from the distance we have come from the cave. Not too far.

Thank you so much,
George Job
Henderson, Nevada.

The Origins of Zero

I quoted a letter from a fellow last week in which he said the Arabs invented the zero. Letters of admonition poured in. Here’s one.

Peter Kilbridge writes:

“If you are going to periodically include a short paragraph of corrigenda, I hope you will note that the Arabs almost certainly did not invent the zero. Scholars seem to agree that it originated in India prior to the Muslim invasions, and was a tiny little circle originally used to represent the column of the abacus holding no numerical value.

It was probably introduced to the Arab world through traders, along with the rest of the ‘Hindu-Arabic numerals.'”



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.