President Bush said Tuesday he remains supportive of a United Arab Emirates-based company's takeover of some U.S. port operations, even though a new, more intensive investigation of the deal's potential security risks has yet to begin.
Mr. Bush is the final arbiter of that second review. Yet, he said after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that "my position hasn't changed" on support for transferring control of management of some major U.S. port facilities from a British company to Dubai-based DP World.
The administration's approval of the deal has caused an uproar from Republicans and Democrats in Congress that it could open the country to terrorist dangers. Lawmakers criticized the deal anew on Tuesday, despite Republican leaders' hopes that the furor had diminished.
In another potential setback for the deal, the Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that the parent company of DP World participates in the Arab League's boycott of Israel.
Reacting to the report, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said, "This boycott not only violates at least the spirit of U.S. law, it is inconsistent with everything we believe in as Americans. We should not be rewarding companies that support discrimination against our key strategic ally and the Middle East's only democracy."
Hoping to quell the bipartisan rebellion and prevent a potentially embarrassing clash over legislation, the Bush administration agreed Sunday to DP World's request for a 45-day investigation of deal's potential security risks, a second review that was not done before the administration's Jan. 17 approval.
The investigation will result in a report submitted to the president, who will have 15 days to decide whether to approve it.
Mr. Bush suggested there was no reason to think the second investigation would produce any different outcome than the first.
"I look forward to a good, consistent review," he said as he and Berlusconi alternated in taking questions from reporters in the Oval Office.
He urged Congress to "please, look at the facts."
"What kind of signal does it send throughout the world if its OK for a British company to mange the ports but not a company that has been secured — that has been cleared for security purposes from the Arab world?" he said. After his remarks on port security, Mr. Bush told the translator not to translate his answer into Italian, unlike his other responses.
On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers returned after a weeklong break, Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing the deal, claiming that the government's initial approval of it was flawed.
They offered as proof Monday's disclosure that the U.S. Coast Guard had raised concerns weeks ago that, because of U.S. intelligence gaps, it could not determine whether the UAE company, DP World, might support terrorist operations.
Bush administration officials say those concerns were addressed and resolved.
But House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King called the Coast Guard assessment "just another example of many unanswered questions."
Countering that at a Senate appropriations hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the Coast Guard documents "an early report" that ultimately concluded that DP World's acquisition of P&O "in and of itself, does not pose a significant threat to U.S. assets in U.S. ports."
Pressed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Chertoff said he saw the Coast Guard memo "about a week ago," but disagreed that it represented a warning. "I don't see it as a flashing light," Chertoff said.
Elsewhere in Washington, former President Bill Clinton told reporters at a meeting of U.S. state governors that the process by which a multi-agency panel approved the deal was "too secretive, too low-level."
"The second thing, and the larger problem, is that everybody in America knows we don't do enough on port security," Mr. Clinton said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, King said he was concerned by Bush administration comments that the 45-day delay would merely be an opportunity to educate Congress.
"It is for them to conduct an investigation that they never conducted in the first place," King said. "There's concerns among Republicans that I've spoken to that the administration has not taken the investigation seriously. They want to have a real investigation — a very intense investigation."
King said he planned to press legislation Tuesday that could give Congress an opportunity to block the deal if lawmakers are dissatisfied with the results of an investigation. "It has to be a weapon held in reserve to ensure there is a real investigation," King said.