(AP) - Citing broad gaps in U.S. intelligence, the U.S. Coast Guard earlier had cautioned the Bush administration that it was unable to determine whether a United Arab Emirates-based company might support terrorist operations.
The surprise disclosure came during a hearing on Dubai-owned DP World's plans to take over significant operations at six leading U.S. ports. The port operations are now handled by London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
There are many intelligence gaps, concerning the potential for DPW or P and O assets to support terrorist operations, that precludes an overall threat assessment of the potential" merger," the unclassified Coast Guard intelligence assessment said.
The breadth of the intelligence gaps also infer potential unknown threats against a large number of potential vulnerabilities," the assessment said.
The Bush administration said the Coast Guard's concerns were raised during its review of the deal, which it approved Jan. 17, and that all those concerns were resolved.
Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, released an unclassified version of the document at a briefing Monday, a day after the Bush administration agreed to DP World's request for a 45-day investigation of the potential security risks related to its deal.
Congressional leaders who brokered the arrangement hoped it would diffuse a bipartisan political uproar over port security and scuttle pushes for legislation this week that would force such an investigation and could embarrass the president.
But senators introduced several bills Monday even though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had urged them to wait for the results of the investigation before pushing legislation.
And criticism over the ports deal by both Republicans and Democrats persisted, particularly when the Coast Guard document was made public.
It raised questions about the security of the companies' operations, the backgrounds of all personnel working for the companies, and whether other foreign countries influenced operations that affect security.
"This report suggests there were significant and troubling intelligence gaps," said Collins, R-Maine. "That language is very troubling to me."
Administration officials defended their decision not to trigger a 45-day review of national security implications of the business transaction following their initial review.
"In this case, the concerns that you're citing were addressed and resolved," Clay Lowery, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for international affairs, told Collins. "There were no national security concerns that were not addressed."
The Coast Guard indicated to The Associated Press that it did not have serious reservations about the ports deal on Feb. 10, when the news organization first inquired about potential security concerns.
"Any time there's a new operator in a port our concern would be that that operator has complied with the (International Ship and Port Facility Security) ISPS code overseas and we just want to take a look at their track record," Cmdr. Jeff Carter, Coast Guard spokesman, said at the time. "And then we would look forward to working with them in the future ensuring they complied with all applicable regulations and international agreements," he added.
Stewart Baker, a Homeland Security Department assistant secretary for policy, planning and international affairs, told lawmakers that the report was an internal Coast Guard document that the interagency panel that reviews foreign investment deals did not see. However, Baker said, he was aware of the Coast Guard concerns.
"I think it's a little unfair to judge this report by one paragraph that happens not to be classified," Baker said. "This paragraph is not really representative of the entire report."
"I think the paragraph speaks for itself," Collins responded before adjourning the public hearing for a closed session to explore the issue further.
Other congressional hearings are scheduled this week.