Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is considering legal moves to either delay or “simply void” the federally approved business deal that would give an Arab company control of operations at the Port of Baltimore.

“We are obviously very concerned about security at the port,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election this year.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki, also a Republican, made a similar threat last night, saying he was “very concerned” about the purchase, which also would cover five other ports, including New York.

“I have directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to explore all legal options that may be available to them in regards to this transaction,” he said.

In Washington, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Hillary Rodham Clinton assailed the deal and said President Bush should stop it to better protect the U.S. from terrorists.

“We wouldn’t turn over our customs service or our border patrol to a foreign government,” said Mr. Menendez, of New Jersey. “We shouldn’t turn over the ports of the United States, either.”

Mr. Menendez said he and Mrs. Clinton, of New York, will introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of port operations to foreign governments.

Mr. Ehrlich said he was not necessarily opposed to the business arrangement in which state-owned Dubai Ports World (DPW) of the United Arab Emirates purchased the company that runs the cargo operations at Baltimore and five other U.S. seaports — New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans.

However, he said Maryland needed to study the deal, and he called the state’s long absence from the months-long approval process “very troubling.”

“We fully understand that 12 different federal agencies have signed off on this particular deal,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Nevertheless, we are in charge of Maryland. We are in charge of the Port of Baltimore.”

Critics of the deal, which was made public late last week, sounded off yesterday in Maryland and on Capitol Hill.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley slammed Mr. Bush for approving DPW’s acquisition of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., the port operator.

“President Bush’s decision to turn over these ports to a foreign country is reckless; it is outrageous; and it is irresponsible,” said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat running for governor.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, called the Bush administration’s actions “misguided and wrongheaded.”

“Port security has long been a soft spot in the war on terror, and one that has been almost completely ignored by the Bush administration,” Mr. Duncan said. “The security of the Port of Baltimore is a vital national — as well as state — interest. And the safety of the people of Maryland should not be placed in the hands of a foreign nation with questionable security credentials.”

Meanwhile, members of Congress and the Bush administration are at odds over whether security is compromised by the Arab company’s involvement in U.S. seaports.

Elected officials from both parties have criticized the government’s approval of an Arab firm running cargo or stevedore operations at the seaports.

Lawmakers say they are worried there are insufficient safeguards to thwart infiltration of the vital facilities by terrorists.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the U.S. security review of DPW in television interviews Sunday.

“We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint,” Mr. Chertoff said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, defended the deal and denied it was coming under fire in the U.S. because of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Mrs. Hughes said the Bush administration would seek to further reassure U.S. lawmakers that the takeover had undergone a thorough security review.

Speaking in Dubai at the end of a visit to the Persian Gulf region that began in Qatar, she said the administration would “in the days ahead” explain the review to Congress “more fully.”

Mr. Ehrlich said he trusted that the Bush administration had reviewed the business arrangement thoroughly. But he said the state needed to perform its own review.

“Stevedoring operations are the issue here,” he said. “It is not control of the port. It is control of one part of the process within the operation of the port. But then again, given the history here, given the fact that we are in the middle of a war, given the fact that we have to look twice at everything … we deem more analysis at our level the appropriate thing to do.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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