Congress at Odds with Bush over Port Contract

President Bush is standing behind a decision to let a Dubai-based company take over shipping operations at six major seaports in the United States. He says it will not jeopardize security. Congress isn't so sure.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Bush is expressing support for the sale of operations at some American ports. The president says he will veto any effort to stop it. A British firm sold some operations at six seaports to a company owned by one of the United Arab Emirates. The word Arab is one of the reasons that some lawmakers are asking about a threat about security at a hearing today.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Bush Administration approved the takeover of the port operations with little fanfare last month. Under the $6.8 billion deal, the company now running cargo operations in parts of six U.S. ports, British-owned P&O, would be bought by Dubai Ports World. Members of Congress say the deal comes as a surprise and that the Bush Administration is endangering homeland security by allowing a state-owned company, especially one from the Middle East, to run American port facilities.

But President Bush defended the deal.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world, that it's okay for a company from one country to manage the port, but not a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world--can't manage the port. And so, look, I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction, but they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully.

NAYLOR: But many other political leaders are concerned. Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, met with reporters at the Port of Baltimore, one of those involved. He said that Maryland was not kept in the loop by anyone in the administration.

Representative ROBERT EHRLICH (Republican, Maryland): No one is happy with respect to notification or I really should say lack of notification here. The process did not work very well.

NAYLOR: But some of the loudest criticisms are coming from Republican leaders of Congress. Both the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, are urging the president to put the takeover on hold while lawmakers take a closer look at it.

Another Republican, Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committees plans legislation that would give Congress the power to block the deal. President Bush told reporters he would veto such a measure. If approved, his first veto ever. Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York in a conference call yesterday called the veto threat very troubling.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Because there is a bipartisan, bicameral concern about this. Asking the president to reconsider, allowing foreign governments to take over our ports and now we know that the president intends to proceed with this ill-advised contract.

NAYLOR: Critics of the proposal point out that some of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through the United Arab Emirates and that the country's banks have been used as a conduit for terrorist funds. But administration officials say the UAE has been an ally in the war on terror. Officials also point out that the U.S. Coast Guard will continue to be responsible for port security as it is now.

Jay Ahern, an assistant commissioner with United States Customs and Border Protection, said the impact of the takeover will not be as widespread as many seem to think.

Mr. JAYSON AHERN (Assistant Commissioner, United States Customs and Border Protection): These again, are just terminal operators within a port. These are not people that are running an entire port or responsible for the security of our entire port.

NAYLOR: The Bush Administration has had earlier connections with Dubai Ports World. One is David Sanborn, the president's recent choice to head the U.S. Maritime Administration. Sanborn is a former official of Dubai Ports World and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is threatening to put a hold on the Sanborn nomination.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose department oversees the panel that approved the port deal, was formally chairman of the CSX Rail Freight Company which sold its own international port operations after he left. The buyer, for more than $1 billion was Dubai Ports World.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capital.

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