Bush seeks to calm uproar over ports deal

Bush administration officials, trying to calm a political furore over allowing a United Arab Emirates company to take over a half-dozen US seaports, told Congress today they spent three months reviewing the deal and said all concerns about security were satisfied.

“We’re not aware of a single national security concern raised recently that was not part of the multi-agency, three-month review,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt told a Senate Armed Services Committee briefing.

Representatives of key agencies that investigated the port deal – but not the heads of the various departments – sought to reassure senators just hours after President Bush declared that “people don’t need to worry about security”.

Indeed, the congressional briefing began with opposition Democrats lashing out at the deal.

Brushing aside President Bush’s assurances, Senator Carl Levin, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said the UAE backed the Taliban and allowed financial support for al-Qaida.

Levin also charged that the UAE has an “uneven history” as “one of only a handful of countries in the world to recognise the Taliban regime in Afghanistan”. He added that millions of dollars in al-Qaida funds went through UAE financial institutions.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton also was critical, calling the approval process “a failure of judgment” because officials “did not alert the president, the secretary of the treasury and the secretary of defence” that several of our critical ports would be turned over to a foreign country.

Senator John Warner, Republican chairman of the committee, emphasised UAE’s co-operation in the war on terrorism, noting that it allows a large number of port calls by US military and commercial ships and that it had made its airfields available to the US military.

Bush, talking to reporters at the conclusion of a Cabinet meeting earlier today, said that “people don’t need to worry about security”.

Bush said he was struck by the fact that people were not concerned about port security when a British company was running the port operation, but they felt differently about an Arab company at the helm. He said the United Arab Emirates was a valuable partner in the fight against terror.

“It’s really important we not send mixed messages to friends and allies around the world as we put together a coalition to fight this war on terror,” Bush told reporters.

The controversy is the latest blow to an administration reeling from setbacks in Iraq, criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina and a series of criminal investigations affecting Republicans in Congress and the White House.

Democrats have seized on the issue, which allows them to attack Bush on what is usually his biggest political strength: national security.

The criticism by Republican politicians reflects a growing willingness to distance themselves from Bush ahead of congressional elections in November.

Under secret conditions of the agreement with the administration, the Dubai company promised to co-operate with US investigations as a condition of the $6.8bn (€5.7bn) deal, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The US government chose not to imose other, routine restrictions.

“The more people learn about the transaction that has been scrutinised and approved by my government, the more they’ll be comforted that our ports will be secure,” said Bush.

Critics in Congress, even before today’s hearing, had noted that the London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which previously operated at those ports, is a publicly traded company while Dubai Ports World is effectively controlled by the government in the UAE.

Senators Robert Menendez and Clinton have said they will introduce legislation to prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from running port operations in the US.

Bush said his administration would continue talks with members of Congress - Republicans and Democrats alike – who have rebelled against the takeover.

He said the briefings were “bringing a sense of calm to this issue”.

Dubai Ports is lining up powerful supporters to persuade sceptical politicians the deal is a good idea.

Even before the controversy erupted, the company had hired former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s law and lobbying firm, Alston and Bird LLC, to win approval for the deal.

The Albright Group, led by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, has also been trying to speak with members of Congress.

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