Monday, February 20, 2006

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle yesterday threatened a congressional investigation of a deal to give control of six U.S. seaports to an Arab company, while one key Republican said the Bush administration’s security reassurances were not adequate.

Democrats also are threatening legislation to block foreign governments from operating U.S. ports.

“I think we’ve got to look into this company. I think we’ve got to ensure ourselves that the American people’s national-security interests are going to be protected,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat. “And frankly, I think the threshold ought to be a little higher for a foreign firm. There can’t be a choice between profits and protecting the American people.”

The classified deal would let Dubai Ports World (DPW) of the United Arab Emirates run ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami. London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which had been running the six ports, was bought last week by the government-owned DPW.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who appeared on “Fox News Sunday” with Mr. Bayh, called the deal “tone-deaf politically at this point in our history” and agreed that “we certainly should investigate it.”

“I’m not so sure it’s the wisest political move we could have made. Most Americans are scratching their head wondering why this company, from this region, now,” Mr. Graham said. “I don’t think now is the time to outsource major port security to a foreign-based company.”

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the Associated Press yesterday that the takeover terms are insufficient to guard against terrorist infiltration.

“I’m aware of the conditions, and they relate entirely to how the company carries out its procedures, but it doesn’t go to who they hire, or how they hire people,” Mr. King said.

“They’re better than nothing, but to me they don’t address the underlying conditions, which is how are they going to guard against things like infiltration by al Qaeda or someone else? How are they going to guard against corruption?” Mr. King said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose agency participated in negotiations along with the Justice Department and other administration officials, said he welcomed a review by Congress.

“There is a legal process Congress created for a committee to sit and review this. It’s Treasury, Commerce, DHS [Department of Homeland Security], FBI is involved, and DoD [Department of Defense] is involved. We look at these transactions,” Mr. Chertoff told CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Mr. Chertoff declined on several Sunday political talk shows to address specifics of the deal, including whether it has been finalized. He described the process as “very thorough” and said “necessary conditions or safeguards have to be put into place.”

“The discussions are classified. I can’t get into the specifics here. But what I can tell you in general is this: We examine the transaction; we look at what the issue of the threat is. If necessary, we build in conditions or requirements that, for extra security, would have to be met in order to make sure that there isn’t a compromise to national security,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection are in charge of port security, not port operators, “and you can be sure that any transaction that goes forward is going to be carefully reviewed, and is also going to be carefully subject to the expertise of Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, cited Mr. Chertoff’s remarks as proof that the administration “just does not get it.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, agreed, calling the secrecy “ridiculous” and saying she will support legislation “to say no more, no way” to foreign ownership of U.S. ports.

“We have to have American companies running our own ports. Our ports are soft targets,” Mrs. Boxer said. “Al Qaeda has said if they attack, that’s one of the places they’re looking.”

“I don’t think we’re being overly paranoid. It’s very simple to say that our infrastructure has to be protected and let’s have American companies do that or the government itself,” Mrs. Boxer said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, yesterday called on President Bush personally to “override the agreement and conduct a special investigation into the matter.” He was joined at a press conference by some family members of September 11 victims.

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