Senate Panel Seeks Answers on Ports Deal

The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a briefing of Bush administration officials on the decision to allow a state-run company from the United Arab Emirates to run cargo operations at several U.S. seaports. Many lawmakers from both parties are angry that they weren't consulted before the deal was made.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Word today of some possible movement between the White House and Congress over the proposed sale of operations at six U.S. ports to a Middle Eastern company. Lawmakers have been questioning the sale of the facilities to Dubai Ports World and President Bush has promised to veto any legislation blocking it. Well, today White House advisor Karl Rove said the president would go along with a delay of the sale. The news came as Congress held its first hearing into the matter.

More from NPR Congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Once again, President Bush found himself defending the sale of port operations, now owned by a British company, to one in the Middle East. The president said security at the six ports will continue to be provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, and he downplayed the sale as merely a transfer from one foreign-owned company to another.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: People don't need to worry about security, this deal wouldn't go forward if we were concerned about the security for the United States of America.

NAYLOR: Members of Congress, however, say they are worried about the sale and upset that they, like the president, learned of it through news reports. At today's briefing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, New York Democrat Hillary Clinton drew parallels between the port deal and the White House's handling of other national security issues.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): If 9/11 was a failure of imagination and Katrina was a failure of initiative, this process is a failure of judgment. In the post-9/11 world, port security is too important an issue to be treated so cavalierly.

NAYLOR: Michigan Democrat Carl Levin quoted from the 9/11 Commission's findings about the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part. He said the UAE had backed the Taliban in Afghanistan and that millions of dollars in al-Qaeda funds had gone through UAE banks. He said allowing Dubai ports world access to the U.S. could have harmful repercussions.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Managing U.S. port facilities enables a company's employees to more easily obtain visas, driver's licenses and bank accounts that open a window of vulnerability that could be exploited.

NAYLOR: Administration witnesses at the committee briefing said the UAE has been a valuable ally, providing a port for U.S. warships, a base for air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, even a place for soldiers from Iraq to take leave. Here's Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph.

Mr. ROBERT JOSEPH (Undersecretary of State): After the events of 9/11, the government of the UAE made a strategic decision to be on the right side of the issues and has cooperated with us very extensively on the war on terror. I think what we need to do is, we need to treat the UAE fairly as we would any other friend or ally.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers, however, were angry that the administration didn't undertake a 45-day investigation of the proposed sale, as they believed current law requires if national security is an issue. Administration officials took a different view of the statute, saying any such concerns were resolved. It led to this exchange between Senator Levin and Deputy Treasury Secretary, Robert Kimmitt.

Sen. LEVIN: If you want the law changed, I don't care which administration you represent. If any administration wants the law changed, this or a previous one, come to Congress and change it, but don't ignore it.

Mr. ROBERT KIMMITT (Deputy Secretary of Treasury): Respectfully, if I could respond briefly. We didn't ignore the law. We might interpret it differently, but the fundamental fact here, concerns were raised, they were resolved. If they hadn't been resolved, then the national security could have been affected.

Sen. LEVIN: If the national security could be affected, this law requires an investigation, period.

NAYLOR: Several lawmakers backed by Republican Congressional leaders say they'll introduce legislation requiring a further review of the proposed sale. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia said in his heart, he believes the issue can be resolved without a showdown and the indication from the White House is that he's right.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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