Bush, Congress Tangle Over Port Deal

President Bush is seen Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006 in the the Cabinet Room of the White House after discussing the results and recommendations of the Hurricane Katrina lessons-learned review process led by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend.
Bush administration officials, trying to calm a political furor over allowing a United Arab Emirates company to acquire half a dozen U.S. seaports, told Congress on Thursday that they spent three months reviewing the deal — and that all concerns about security were satisfied.

"We're not aware of a single national security concern raised recently that was not part of" the multiagency, three-month review of the deal that would permit the company to take over significant operations at the ports, 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."

Democrats on the panel were unconvinced.

Brushing aside Mr. Bush's assurances, Sen. Carl Levin, the committee's top Democrat, said the UAE backed the Taliban and allowed financial support for al Qaeda. Levin also charged that the UAE has an "uneven history" as "one of only a handful of countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." He added that millions of dollars in al Qaeda funds went through UAE financial institutions.

Read a confidential letter on conditions of the deal (.pdf)

Sen. 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 defense" that several of our critical ports would be turned over to foreign country.

Sen. John Warner, Republican chairman of the committee, emphasized the UAE's cooperation in the war on terrorism, noting that it allows a large number of port calls by U.S. military and commercial ships and that it had made its airfields available to the U.S. military.

But when a round of questioning began, 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.

Mr. Bush, talking to reporters at the conclusion of a Cabinet meeting earlier Thursday, said that "people don't need to worry about security."

Mr. 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," the president 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 the president on what is usually his biggest political strength: national security. The criticism by Republican lawmakers reflects a growing willingness to distance themselves from Mr. Bush ahead of congressional elections in November.