WASHINGTON (AP) – Seeking to calm a political storm, the Bush administration is rejecting criticism from Republicans and Democrats that U.S. national security would be endangered if a company owned by the Dubai government should take control of major U.S. ports.
President George W. Bush is implying that opposition might be based on prejudice against Arabs, noting that the contract to control the six major ports is now held by a British-owned private company.
“What I find interesting is that it’s OK for a British company to manage some ports, but not OK for a company from a country that is also a valuable ally in the war on terror,” he said Thursday.
In Congress, Democrats accused the administration of not doing a thorough enough review before agreeing that Dubai Ports World could take control of the seaports.
Sen. Carl Levin, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was incensed that the interagency government committee dealing with foreign takeovers approved the UAE proposal in 30 days. The law requires an extra 45 days’ consideration for any deal that could be a risk to U.S. security.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. John Warner, said he would ask Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for a memorandum on the administration’s interpretation of the law to see whether it deviates from Congress’ intent.
Officials from four Cabinet departments, Homeland Security, Treasury, Defense and State, appeared before Warner and four Democratic committee members to brief on the deal.
The officials assured the senators the deal had been subject to careful review, and all security questions were satisfied.
Later, however, Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, said Bush was willing to accept a slight delay in Dubai Ports’ purchase of terminal leases and other operations at six U.S. ports from the British corporation, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
“There’s no requirement that it close, you know, immediately after” a British government review of the $6.8 billion (¤5.7 billion) purchase is completed next week, Rove said on Fox Radio. “What is important is that members of Congress have the time to get fully briefed on this.”
The ports security controversy is the latest blow to an administration reeling from setbacks in Iraq, criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina last year and a series of criminal investigations affecting Republicans in Congress and the White House.
Democrats have seized on the latest issue, which allows them to attack Bush on what is seen by many as his main political strength: national security. The criticism by Republican lawmakers reflects a growing willingness to distance themselves from Bush ahead of congressional elections in November; Bush is forbidden by the Constitution from running for a third term, which has cost him much of the political sway that normally accompanies the presidency.
The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is the commercial capital, is a crucial ally in the campaign against global terror that Bush began after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Before that, however, the emirates had a spotty record on terror, mainly involving its role as a banking and financial center. About half the $250,000 (¤210,000) the spent in the United States by the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists came from UAE banks. Money from Dubai banks also was linked to al-Qaeda attacks in 1998 against U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Sen. Levin, whose state, Michigan, has the second-largest ethnic Arab population in the United States, referred to such facts Thursday as he grilled the deputy secretary of the treasury about the procedures by which Dubai Ports won control of the six ports.
Levin spoke of the UAE’s “uneven history” as “one of only a handful of countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” Millions of dollars in al-Qaeda funds went through UAE financial institutions, he said.
“Is there not one agency in this government that believes this takeover could affect the national security of the United States?” Levin demanded to know.
The Treasury official, Robert Kimmitt, insisted that “we didn’t ignore the law. Concerns were raised. They were resolved.”
Warner, the chairman, emphasized the UAE’s cooperation in the war on terror and noted that it allows a large number of port calls by U.S. military and commercial ships and made its airfields available to the U.S. military. When his turn to question the witness began, however, Warner sharply asked Kimmitt whether the reviewing agencies considered UAE’s role’s in the transfer of money to al-Qaeda and of nuclear components to rogue nations. Kimmitt said those factors were taken into account before the deal was approved.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, said the approval process represented “a failure of judgment” because the president, the secretary of the treasury and the secretary of defense were not alerted “that several of our most critical ports were about to be transferred to a foreign government.”