Bush Vows Veto Over Port Deal

George W. Bush, U.S. President, talks to members of the press corps after arriving on the South Lawn of the White House, Washington, DC, 2-21-06
Overriding objections from Republicans and Democrats alike, President Bush endorsed the takeover of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports by a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates. He pledged to veto efforts in Congress to block the agreement.

The president on Tuesday defended his administration's approval of the sale of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World despite concerns in Congress that it would increase the possibility of terrorism at American ports.

Mr. Bush and Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are not walking lockstep on this one, reports CBS News White House correspondent Jim Axelrod.

The transaction will allow Dubai Ports World to run major commercial port operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. "If there was any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward," Mr. Bush said.

"I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company," Mr. Bush said. "I am trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, 'We'll treat you fairly.'"

Mr. Bush sought to quiet a political storm that has united Republican governors and Frist with liberal Democrats including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer.

Frist said Tuesday, before Mr. Bush's comments, that the pending sale raised "serious questions regarding the safety and security of our homeland."

Hastert, asked the president for a moratorium on the sale until it could be studied further. "We must not allow the possibility of compromising our national security due to lack of review or oversight by the federal government," Hastert said.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., speaks for many on Capitol Hill when he pointed out that two of the 911 hijackers were from the United Arab Emirates, Axelrod reports.

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, during a tour of Baltimore's port on Tuesday, called the deal an "overly secretive process at the federal level."

Frist, R-Tenn., threatened to introduce legislation to put the sale on hold if the White House did not delay the takeover.

Mr. Bush took the rare step of calling reporters to his conference room on Air Force One after returning from a speech in Colorado. He also stopped to talk before television cameras after he returned to the White House.

"I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction," the president said. "But they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully."

At the same time, a senior executive from Dubai Ports World pledged the company would agree to whatever security precautions the U.S. government demanded to salvage the deal. Chief operating officer Edward "Ted" H. Bilkey promised Dubai Ports "will fully cooperate in putting into place whatever is necessary to protect the terminals."

Bilkey traveled to Washington in an effort to defuse the growing controversy.