White House May Put Off Ports 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 opened the door Thursday to a delay in allowing a state-owned United Arab Emirates company to assume significant operations at six U.S. ports as lawmakers pushed for a new 45-day investigation of the deal.

The company, Dubai Ports World, signaled to Congress that it, too, would be willing to accept a short delay while lawmakers review the deal.

"People don't need to worry about security," President Bush said shortly before administration officials who approved the transaction told a Senate committee their 90-day review did not turn up a single national security concern to justify blocking it.

Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, said Bush was willing to accept a slight delay in Dubai Ports World's purchase of terminal leases and other operations at six U.S. ports from a British company.

"There's no requirement that it close, you know, immediately after" a British government review of the $6.8 billion purchase is completed next week, Rove said on Fox Radio's "Tony Snow Show." "What is important is that members of Congress have the time to get fully briefed on this."

Lobbyists for Dubai Ports World indicated that while the company is eager to close the deal, it is willing to agree to a delay to satisfy demands by members of Congress, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

Nonetheless, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada sought quick action on legislation relating to the deal when Congress returns to Washington next week.

In a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Reid said the administration's handling of the deal "could not be more flawed." Reid said he was alarmed at the failure of the administration to "exercise the full statutory authority to conduct a complete investigation into the potential national security implications of this deal."

The deal allowing Dubai Ports World to take over significant operations at ports from New York to Miami has created an embarrassing standoff between the president and a Congress controlled by his own party.

Raising concerns about national security in an era of terrorism, Republicans and Democrats alike are crafting legislation blocking or delaying the deal with an Arab country tied to some of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers. But CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports White House officials emphasize Mr. Bush won't back down from his threat of a veto if Congress passes legislation to try and stop the deal.

Officials from the Homeland Security, Treasury, Defense and State departments appeared before Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and four Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee for a briefing arranged while Congress was officially away from Washington.

The officials tried to assure the panel that the deal has been subject to a careful, three-month review and that all security questions were satisfied. They said no one raised an issue that would have prompted the need for a further, 45-day investigation.

CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports there was no sense of backing down on the port agreement by Bush agency officials, but there was acknowledgement if could have been handled better.

"We're not aware of a single national security concern raised recently that was not part of" the three-month review, Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt told the lawmakers.