Coast Guard Report Aired Concerns on Ports Deal

The political turmoil continues on Capitol Hill over the operational takeover of some U.S. port facilities by a Dubai-based firm. In a Senate briefing on Monday, lawmakers asked about a Coast Guard evaluation from last year that raised security concerns about the deal.

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A Senate briefing yesterday revealed concerns about the deal that would allow an Arab company to manage operations at six U.S. seaports. The company in question is state-owned Dubai Ports World. The new concern was raised last year by the Coast Guard, and it's in regard to security. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

When six administration officials showed up to brief for a Senate panel yesterday on the ports deal, Homeland Security chair Susan Collins wanted to know why the White House has insisted that no 45-day investigation was required of the deal. Collins, a Maine Republican, pointed to a Coast Guard evaluation from last December that said a threat assessment of vulnerabilities in the deal could not be done because of intelligence gaps.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Democrat, Maine): How, given the red flag questions that the Coast Guard raised, very serious questions about operations personnel and foreign influence, how could there not have been the 45-day investigation that's clearly required by law?

WELNA: Defending the committee's actions felt a Homeland security department assistant secretary Stewart Baker. He told Collins the problem of intelligence gaps were dealt with by getting special assurances from Dubai Ports World that U.S. officials would have access to company documents.

Assistant Secretary STEWART BAKER (Homeland Security): Our view has been that if we can obtain assurances from the companies that we're satisfied with, that address the national security concerns that we may have, that accepting the assurances, rather than forcing an investigation and trying to either block or accept the transaction, is a better approach.

WELNA: Collins ended the public briefing, so the panel could reconvene behind closed doors to hear classified details about the deal. She did not appear reassured by what she'd heard when she spoke to reporters after that closed session.

Senator COLLINS: At the end of this afternoon of briefings, I am more convinced than ever that the process was truly flawed, that the National Security and Homeland Security implications of this proposed transaction were such that a 45-day formal investigation, as called for under the law, should have been undertaken.

WELNA: Collins expressed support for the 45-day probe of the deal now being undertaken. But another Senator, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, pointed out that Dubai Ports World still plans to close the deal the day after tomorrow.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I don't think we ought to fool the American people on what's going on here.

WELNA: Levin asked what would happen if either the Bush administration or Congress found the deal should not go ahead. The Treasury Department's Clay Lowery tried in vain to reassure him.

Mr. CLAY LOWERY (United States Treasury Department): (unintelligible) has basically has said that it will abide by the outcome of the review.

Mr. LEVIN: Is that going to be in writing in the contract that there will be a recision clause in the contract?

Mr. LOWERY: I can't speak to that.

WELNA: Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, New York Democrat Charles Schumer introduced bipartisan legislation that would force a congressional review of an approved deal that's only now being investigated.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): It's almost like Alice in Wonderland, where you first have the verdict, and then the trial.

WELNA: But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who criticized the Ports deal last week, now wants the 45-day probe completed before Congress takes any action. David Welna, NPR News.

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