Democratic senators assailed an Arab company's takeover of operations at six major American ports and said Monday that President Bush should stop the deal to better protect the U.S. from terrorists.
"We wouldn't turn over our customs service or our border patrol to a foreign government," New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez said during a news conference. "We shouldn't turn over the ports of the United States, either."
CBS News reports Menendez and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of port operations to foreign governments.
Elected officials from both parties have criticized the government's approval of last week's purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., by Dubai Ports World, a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
Lawmakers say they are worried there are insufficient safeguards to thwart infiltration of the vital facilities by terrorists.
"It's unbelievably tone deaf politically at this point in our history," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said on "Fox News Sunday." "Most Americans are scratching their heads, wondering why this company from this region now."
During a stop Monday in Birmingham, Ala., Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the deal and said the administration had a "very extensive process" for reviewing such transactions.
"Lots of considerations are weighed in connection with a recommendation, and the consensus was this was a transaction that should be approved," he said. "It was something that went through our normal process. It's one that takes into account matters of national security, takes into account concerns about port security. And for a variety of reasons, the consensus was that this was a transaction that should be approved."
But CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston reports critics point to the United Arab Emirates track record — it was the transfer point for nuclear components to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and the UAE's history as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"God, if you have a country that is not doing internally what it should be to prevent the transfer of nuclear parts, we're going to give that country operation of the major ports of this nation?" New Jersey's Menendez asked. "I think not."
"It needs to be stopped by the president, first and foremost. Either freeze the deal or negate the deal," he added.
During a campaign stop in Bladensburg, Md., Monday, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was adamant that the operations of his city's port not be turned over to a foreign country.
"I believe that President's Bush's decision to turn over the operations of any American port is reckless. It is outrageous and it is irresponsible," said O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland.
"We are not going to turn over the port of Baltimore to a foreign government. It's not going to happen."
O'Malley was also quick to attack Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who spent most of Sunday on television defending the deal.
"With all due respect to Mr. Chertoff," O'Malley said. "He was also the Homeland Security secretary who went to sleep after he was informed the levees had broken in New Orleans."