U.S. terms for approving an Arab company’s takeover of operations at six major American ports are insufficient to guard against terrorist infiltration, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said.
“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,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., 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.
He said he learned about the government’s conditions for approving the sale from meetings with senior Bush administration officials.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the security review of Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates, the company given permission to take over the port operations. But Chertoff declined to talk about specifics of government discussions with the company, saying that information is classified.
“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 said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., was bought last week by DP World, a state-owned business. Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
Lawmakers from both parties are questioning 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,” Graham said.
Added Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.: “I think we’ve got to look into this company. We’ve got to (assure) … the American people that their national security interests are going to be protected.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab journalists in an interview 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,” he added.
Sen. Robert Menendez, who is working on legislation to prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from running port operations in the U.S., said Chertoff’s comments showed him that the administration “just does not get it.”
In a statement, the New Jersey Democrat said, “No matter what steps the administration claims it has secretly taken, it is an unacceptable risk to turn control of our ports over to a foreign government, particularly one with a troubling history. We cannot depend on promises a foreign government has given the administration in secret to secure our ports.”
Chertoff said Dubai Ports World should not be excluded automatically from such a deal because it is based in the UAE.
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.
Dubai Ports World has said it intends to “maintain and, where appropriate, enhance current security arrangements.” The UAE’s foreign minister has described his country as an important U.S. ally in fighting terrorism.
“I would hope that our friends in Abu Dhabi would not be offended by the fact that in our democracy, we debate these things,” Rice said in the interview with the Arab journalists.
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