Lawmakers, White House at Odds Over Ports

Monday, February 20th 2006, 10:11 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Members of Congress and the Bush administration are at odds over whether security is compromised by an Arab company's takeover of operations at six major American seaports.

Some lawmakers expressed concern Sunday that the safeguards are insufficient to thwart infiltration of the vital facilities by terrorists.

At issue is the purchase last week of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., by Dubai Ports World, a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the U.S. security review of DP World in various 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,'' Chertoff told ABC's ``This Week.''

The government typically builds in ``certain conditions or requirements that the company has to agree to make sure we address the national security concerns,'' he said on NBC's ``Meet the Press,'' but added that details were classified.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said later he wasn't as sure.

``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,'' King told The Associated Press.

``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-Qaida or someone else? How are they going to guard against corruption?'' King said.

Critics have cited the UAE's history as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, they contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.

A Miami company, Continental Stevedoring & Terminals Inc., has filed suit in a Florida court challenging the deal. A subsidiary of Eller & Company Inc., Continental maintains it will become an ``involuntary partner'' with Dubai's government under the sale.

Michael Seymour, president of the North American arm of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, said in a statement that company lawyers would have to examine the lawsuit before he could comment on it.

He noted, however, that his company ``is itself a foreign-owned terminal operator that has long worked with U.S. government officials in charge of security at the ports to meet all U.S. government standards, as do other foreign companies that currently operate ports in the United States.''

``We are confident that the DP World purchase will ensure that our operations continue to meet all relevant standards in the U.S. through ongoing collaboration between the port operators and American, British, Australian and port security officials throughout the world,'' Seymour said.

Lawmakers from both parties questioned the sale as a possible risk to national security.

``It's unbelievably tone deaf politically at this point in our history,'' Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said on ``Fox News Sunday.'' ``Most Americans are scratching their heads, wondering why this company from this region now,'' he said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told CBS' ``Face the Nation'': ``It is ridiculous to say you're taking secret steps to make sure that it's OK for a nation that had ties to 9/11, (to) take over part of our port operations in many of our largest ports. This has to stop.''

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab journalists Friday at the State Department, that it was ``the considered opinion of the U.S. government that this can go forward.'' She pledged to work with Congress because ``perhaps people will need better explanation and will need to understand some of the process that we have gone through.''

At least one Senate oversight hearing is planned for later this month.

``Congress is welcome to look at this and can get classified briefings,'' Chertoff told CNN's ``Late Edition.'' ``We have to balance the paramount urgency of security against the fact that we still want to have a robust global trading system.''