- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The head of DP World yesterday sought to assure senators that his Dubai-based company’s takeover of terminal operations at six U.S. ports would pose no threat and would even enhance U.S. security.

“We are not ‘acquiring’ or ‘taking over’ U.S. ports, as some people claimed,” Edward H. Bilkey, chief operating officer of the company, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday. “We are very concerned with the security of the U.S. and actually are a great partner with them.”

But his words failed to reassure some senators.

“These port operators are intricately involved in port security,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, told him. “I think this whole deal is fraught with danger, and I’m going to oppose” it.

“I think this proposal is nuts,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.

President Bush yesterday stood by the deal, under which a British company would sell to DP World the right to operate terminals in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Newark, N.J.

“If there was any doubt in my mind or people in my administration’s mind that our ports would be less secure and the American people in danger, this deal wouldn’t go forward,” he said.

The deal caused an uproar among lawmakers and the public last week, prompting Democrats to seize on the administration’s approval of the deal as a political issue in an election year.

DP World agreed over the weekend to a new 45-day national security review, and many Republicans yesterday tried to cool the situation, urging colleagues to calm down and collect all the information before condemning the deal.

“As we learn more of the facts, I think we can see more of the justification here,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican and member of the commerce panel.

“It is a very complex issue, and we need to act like adults,” said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, initially had been critical of the deal, but he backed off some yesterday, saying he has more information now and had been privately briefed by administration officials.

“As I’ve gotten more information, I have a greater comfort level,” he said, adding that he would not bring legislation to the floor while the security review takes place but that Congress still has a crucial oversight role to play in this period.

A House Republican aide put it more bluntly, saying that House Republican leaders will be watching to see how well the White House can sell the deal to the American people and to what extent the administration allows Congress to participate in the review process.

“If those things aren’t achieved, then it doesn’t look good for the deal,” the aide said.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee repeatedly complained yesterday that DP World is ultimately controlled by the government of Dubai, which participates in the Arab economic boycott of Israel, as reported yesterday in the Jerusalem Post.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the boycott “is inconsistent with everything we believe in as Americans.”

The Anti-Defamation League joined in, saying yesterday that Dubai’s boycott “should torpedo” any deal with the United States on port operations.

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, said he “deplores” the boycott. But he defended the ports deal, noting that many lawmakers have foreign terminal operators in their state ports and that Dubai’s port in the Middle East is a key resource for the U.S. military.

“The Dubai port itself is probably the most important port for the U.S. military today,” he said. “To offend this country with some sort of racial profiling is absolutely wrong.”

Mr. Bilkey said his company followed every necessary step in getting the deal cleared, agreed to additional security commitments, and will be “active participants” in several U.S. security and anti-terrorism port programs. He stressed that the U.S. still will control the security of the ports.

But many lawmakers are not backing off their concerns.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican in a tough re-election battle, signed on to a bipartisan bill that would give Congress the final power to accept or reject the deal after the administration review.

He said yesterday that the administration must publicly explain how security concerns were assuaged, especially in light of a Coast Guard document released this week that cited initial doubts. It is “unacceptable” for the Coast Guard to say those concerns were addressed but not to explain how, he said.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first governor to say he would try to block the deal, agreed, saying in Baltimore that the Coast Guard revelations show the need for a congressional probe.

“Let us get it all out there, then everybody can judge and make an informed judgment,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican whose initial outrage over the deal has been tempered in recent days with his support of a more transparent review process.

“The administration said the Coast Guard concerns were addressed. Well, guess what,” the governor said. “Let us have an oversight hearing and put the Coast Guard up and see what their concerns were and put up the administration to remediate it.”

Meanwhile, Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, demanding to know why the Coast Guard’s concerns were “ignored.” The two are pushing the legislation on to which Mr. Santorum and others have signed.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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