White House: Congress Should Have Been Told of Ports Deal

The Bush administration says that it should have briefed Congress sooner about the sale of shipping operations at six U.S. ports to a Dubai-based company. The White House says the president was unaware of the deal until it was approved. But the administration is standing behind the decision.

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

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And I'm Melissa Block. The White House is still trying to put out the political flare-up over an Arab-owned company taking over some operations at six American seaports. Today, White House spokesman Scott McClellan admitted that there could have been better consultation with lawmakers. He also said the president himself had only learned the status of the port deal from recent news reports. The Arab-owned firm, Dubai Ports World, is poised to take over operations next week. President Bush has said he would veto any effort to stop the deal, and the administration has been busy explaining his position. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The White House was very open about one point today. It never anticipated this hostile reaction, especially not from so many members of the president's own party. One Republican House member, Sue Myrick of North Carolina, sent Mr. Bush a letter today. This is the full text.

"Dear Mr. President: In regards to selling American ports to the United Arab Emirates, not just no, but hell, no."

Attempting to explain what he called a misunderstanding, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said many of the news headlines have exaggerated the role Dubai Ports World will play at seaports in the U.S., suggesting they would run the ports and handle security. McClellan said Dubai would do neither. But he also said administration officials should have been in touch with lawmakers before this week.

Press Secretary SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I mean, in hindsight, when you look at this and the coverage that it's received and the false impression that it has left with some, we probably should have briefed members of Congress about it sooner.

GREENE: Members of Congress aren't the only ones who didn't know about the deal, though. McClellan said President Bush didn't hear about it until the past few days. Reporters pressed him to say how exactly the president learned about it.

Unidentified Man: Well, he found out through news coverage, is that what you're saying? How did he find out about it?

Press Secretary MCCLELLAN: Yeah, I think initially, Steve, when this was becoming more, it was getting more press coverage, that's how he found out about it, that's correct.

GREENE: But McClellan said the president wants Americans to know he's satisfied that his administration has examined all possible risks involved with having a company owned by an Arab government manage some operations at maritime ports. The spokesman said Mr. Bush in recent days went to Cabinet secretaries who were involved in approving the deal and made sure they were all onboard. Those Cabinet members sit on a little-known panel called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. It meets in secret and must approve business deals with foreign companies that may impact national security. The panel is chaired by Treasury Secretary John Snow, who said today:

Secretary of the Treasury JOHN W. SNOW: If the transaction had been determined to present any security risks, it would not have been approved. The fact it was approved tells me that these people, highly competent professionals charged with this responsibility, who take their responsibilities very seriously, have reached a thoughtful conclusion.

GREENE: Before Snow became Treasury Secretary, he chaired the CSX rail company. After he left that job, CSX sold off its international port operations for more than a billion dollars to Dubai Ports World. White House spokesman McClellan was asked about whether Dubai Ports World has ties in the administration that made the approval of its deal go faster than usual. He said absolutely not. But he did give some hint why the White House is pushing so hard to complete this deal with one of the United Arab Emirates, or the U.A.E.

Press Secretary SCOTT MCCLELLAN: They provide access to their ports for our aircraft carriers. They provide access to our Air Force planes over their air space and at their airports. The U.A.E. is someone we have worked very closely with to crack down on terrorist financing. They work very closely with us in sharing important intelligence. And so I think you have to also look at it in that context.

GREENE: Top Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who spoke out against the deal yesterday, laid low today but did not announce a change in position. Meanwhile, Dubai Ports World has hired a Washington lobbying firm that employs two former Senate majority leaders, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle, to help them make sure the deal goes through.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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