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Customs Deal Gives Big Advantage to UAE Over U.S.

Ranking Member Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said the pre-clearance facility would subject just three planes a day to extra scrutiny.

"It is understandable that an agency of the federal government subject to sequester, subject to furloughs, subject to waiting times that deter economic activity and tourism to the United States would say, well, gee, can't we get another source of revenue?" Sherman said of the UAE offering to chip in 80 percent of the CBP facility's costs.

"But, if the net effect of this is to diminish the number of people who fly on U.S. carriers and to give an unfair advantage to the airline based in Abu Dhabi then what looks like a good deal for American taxpayers may in fact not be."

McAleenan, testifying before the panel, said one reason Abu Dhabi was chosen is "to shut down different routes" for terrorists in the region.

"DHS and CBP engaged many governments in this region in response to the emerging aviation security threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the last several years there's been ongoing conversations," the CBP official said. "…A lot of these flights from source countries for extraneous activity are coming through the Arabian Peninsula. They are coming through the UAE and Abu Dhabi. We'd like to close off one of those outlets with our most strongest security program that we can project abroad."

Lawmakers noted that it doesn't stop terrorists from simply avoiding the pre-clearance outlet.

Sherman said he thinks the security benefit is "very slight."

"It's not like this person, if they chose to go to Lagos or Frankfurt on the way to the United States, would be subjected to that pre-clearance," he said. "…So I think we have to evaluate this on an economic basis."

The head of the trade association for U.S. airlines, Nicholas Calio of Airlines for America, told the committee "it doesn't matter that CBP's claiming a national security -- it's also a matter of economic security, and they play into each other."

"What we have here basically is the United States government picking winners and losers in the international aviation business, and the winners are the international competitors of U.S.-based airlines," Calio said. "…For the UAE this is not a national security issue, it's a commercial play. It's about diverting traffic that otherwise would fly on American metal to their own planes for which they don't have the population to fill."

He noted that the UAE has on order twice as many new wide-body jets than the U.S. carriers have combined -- and is looking for a way to fill them.

"These governments and their airlines have made clear publicly, repeatedly that their goal is to make airports like Abu Dhabi the world hub. They've further made clear that an integral part of the plan, in fact, the indispensable part of the plan is to do this by skimming international passengers from U.S. carriers," Calio continued. "…So what we have here basically is the United States government facilitating the business strategy of these foreign governments and their airlines."

President Obama called UAE Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Tuesday; the White House said the leaders focused on Egypt and "the strong partnership and friendship between the United States and the UAE."

Lawmakers contend that partnership is blossoming at the expense of Americans.

"We have every confidence that U.S. airlines can be marketplace global leaders in commercial aviation – but that we cannot possibly expect them to succeed when this Administration helps foreign national carriers at the expense of domestic airlines," said the Meehan-DeFazio letter to Napolitano.

"Providing explicit support for a government-owned foreign competitor by opening a CBP Preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi is wrongheaded, and we strongly urge you to abandon this agreement."