Bush Defends Deal to Entrust Ports to Dubai Firm

President Bush says a deal to allow a company owned by the government of Dubai — one of the United Arab Emirates — to operate six U.S. seaports is no threat to port security. He promises to veto any effort to stop it. Lawmakers, including Republicans, have criticized the decision.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. President Bush today is defending a decision to entrust the operation of six U.S. seaports to a company owned by Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. The president reacted to growing criticism from lawmakers, including members of his own party. He said he would veto the kind of legislation that was talked about today by the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Majority Leader. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The ports involved are New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans. Operations at the facilities are now run by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the British-owned firm being taken over by Dubai Ports World. The takeover was approved by the Bush administration last month. But in the post 9/11 climate, politicians from both parties are raising questions about the wisdom of allowing an Arab-owned company to control some of the nation's largest cargo ports. Arriving back at the White House today after two days of travel, President Bush said the United Arab Emirates has been a good ally of the U.S. and that security at the ports will not be a concern.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The company is from a country that has been cooperative in the war on terror, been an ally in the war on terror. The, uh, the company operates, uh, ports in different countries around the world, ports from which cargo has been sent to the United States on a regular basis. I think it sends a terrible signal, uh, to friends around the world that, uh, it's okay for a company from one country to manage the port, but not a country that has, plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world, can't, can't manage the port.

NAYLOR: The president spoke at the end of a day when bipartisan criticism of the ports transaction reached a crescendo, a day in which both House Speaker Dennis Hassert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist spoke of delaying the transaction for further review and doing it by law. The president said he would veto any such legislation. It would be the first veto of his presidency.

The administration's approval of the takeover has touched off a political firestorm up and down the East Coast. The governors of New York and Maryland, both Republicans, are questioning the deal. Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, speaking at the Port of Baltimore, said his state was not informed of the deal before it was approved, and he is concerned about security issues.

Governor ROBERT L. EHRLICH, JR. (Maryland): There is not the requisite degree of federal Homeland Security and FBI involvement I believe is needed, given where we are in the world today. For that very reason alone, I believe that we should step back, have an oversight hearing or two or three or however many it takes in the Congress, and do this correctly.

NAYLOR: House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King, a Republican from New York, says he'll introduce emergency legislation when Congress reconvenes next week to block the takeover. King wants the panel that approved the deal to conduct a 45-day investigation into the takeover's effects on national security. The measure would also give Congress authority to disapprove the sale within 30 days.

Democrats have also been quick to question the ports deal. Democratic senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey earlier told NPR's Day to Day that the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, has a spotty record on terrorism.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): The reality is the United Arab Emirates has a troubling history. Two of the September 11th hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates. The 9/11 Commission Report cited it as being a financial base for al Qaeda.

NAYLOR: But what began last week as a protest among Democrats today became the most strikingly bipartisan rebellion yet against a decision by the Bush administration. The next question is whether the president's veto threat will damp the controversy down or add fuel to the fire.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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