Wednesday, February 22, 2006

President Bush yesterday vowed to use his first-ever veto to strike any law that Congress passes to block a deal allowing an Arab state-owned company to operate six major U.S. seaports, amid growing bipartisan efforts to thwart the plan for security reasons.

“If there was any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward,” the president said in a brief but firm statement on the White House South Lawn.

Mr. Bush said questioning the deal because it involves United Arab Emirates company makes no sense, given that a British company now does the job.

“I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company. I am trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, ‘We’ll treat you fairly,’” Mr. Bush earlier told reporters who had traveled with him on Air Force One to Washington from a Colorado event.

Republican congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, among Mr. Bush’s most reliable supporters, yesterday said giving operational control to a Middle Eastern country raises serious questions regarding the safety and security of our homeland.

Mr. Frist said that if Mr. Bush is unable or unwilling to delay the transaction — which takes effect March 2 — he would introduce legislation to “ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review.”

Other lawmakers from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans also have sounded alarms over allowing Dubai Ports World (DPW) to take control of ports in Baltimore, New York, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and New Jersey. DPW is purchasing the company that had operated the ports, London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., for $6.8 billion.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, said they also will offer legislation to halt the deal, require congressional involvement and investigate the manner in which the proposal was approved.

“It’s hard to believe that this administration would be so out of touch with the American people’s national security concerns that it would use its first ever veto to save this troubling Dubai ports deal,” Mr. Schumer said, responding to Mr. Bush’s veto threat.

The port deal was approved by the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States last month.

A senior executive from DPW promised that the company would agree to whatever security precautions the U.S. government demanded to salvage the deal. Chief operating officer Edward H. Bilkey promised Dubai Ports “will fully cooperate in putting into place whatever is necessary to protect the terminals.”

Mr. Bilkey traveled to Washington in an effort to defuse the growing controversy.

Meanwhile, Arab-American leaders condemned criticism of the port deal as anti-Arab bigotry.

“What started this and drives this is bigotry,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

Mr. Zogby said that uninformed, pandering politicians were doing great damage to U.S. attempts at diplomacy in the Middle East.

“If you take an election year, and fear of national security ready to be exploited, and Arabs, and put it together: You’ve got a pretty lethal brew that politicians are ready to stir up,” Mr. Zogby said.

Port security is handled by the Coast Guard, which oversees security plans submitted by facility operators and conducts planned and surprise inspections throughout the year, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter.

Ships entering the a port must give the Coast Guard 96 hours notice before docking and provide details of the cargo and crew list.

“We use the advance notice arrival information and intelligence we may have along with the ships’s track record to determine if the ship is to be searched,” Cmdr. Carter said.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the job of checking the background of foreign companies involved in these kinds of purchases belongs to the Justice Department and the department followed a “very detailed process” in this case.

Mr. Gonzales said that the department was concerned about maintaining a high level of security at the ports and that evaluations were made by Justice in this case based on that question and the impact it would have on national security.

However, there is no cohesive hiring or screening process for hiring port workers. Many of the port operations are unionized.

Both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised the United Arab Emirates and its help in war on terror.

“In everything that we have asked and work with them on, they have proven to be very, very solid partners,” Gen. Pace said. U.S. aircraft carriers visit its ports and U.S. aircraft use its airfields.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday called for a congressional review of the port deal, and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine threatened to halt the plan with a lawsuit.

The president and the White House were caught flat-footed by the blossoming controversy.

But the administration ramped up quickly on the issue, having Mr. Bush to take the rare steps of speaking to the press aboard his presidential plane, followed by a South Lawn statement less than an hour later.

The second time was for the benefit of television cameras, who were not among the journalists to interview the president aboard Air Force One.

Audrey Hudson, S.A. Miller, Jerry Seper and Jon Ward contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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