Video: Debate over ports

updated 2/21/2006 8:35:54 AM ET 2006-02-21T13:35:54

Two Republican governors on Monday questioned a Bush administration decision allowing an Arab-owned company to operate six major U. S. ports, saying they may try to cancel lease arrangements at ports in their states.

New York Gov. George Pataki and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich voiced doubts about the acquisition of a British company that has been running the U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World, a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates.

The British company, Peninsular and Oriental, runs major commercial operations at ports in Baltimore, Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.

“Ensuring the security of New York’s port operations is paramount and I am very concerned with the purchase of Peninsular & Oriental Steam by Dubai Ports World,” Pataki said in a news release.

“I have directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to explore all legal options that may be available to them in regards to this transaction,” said the New York governor, who is still in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy.

No advance word
Ehrlich, concerned about security at the Port of Baltimore, said Monday he is “very troubled” that Maryland officials got no advance notice before the Bush administration approved an Arab company’s takeover of the operations at the six ports.

“We needed to know before this was a done deal, given the state of where we are concerning security,” Ehrlich told reporters in the State House rotunda in Annapolis.

The state of Maryland is considering its options, up to and including voiding the contract for the Port of Baltimore, Ehrlich said, adding: “We have a lot of discretion in the contract.”

Pataki is also asking the federal government to “share all critical relevant information made available to the Council on Foreign Investment during the course of the review of the purchase,” a reference to the federal panel that approved the deal.

New York’s legal options could include canceling the lease for operation, effectively shutting out Dubai Ports World from port activities. P&O signed a 30-year lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2000 to operate the Port Newark Container Terminal.

The governors are the latest elected officials from both parties to complain about the deal.

House Homeland Security chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., has been one of the most vocal, saying secret assurances obtained by the government don’t go far enough to protect the nation’s seaports.

Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez joined the chorus of complaints on Monday.

“We wouldn’t turn over our customs service or our border patrol to a foreign government,” Menendez said during a Monday news conference in Newark. “We shouldn’t turn over the ports of the United States, either.”

‘Very extensive process’
Menendez said he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., will introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of port operations to foreign governments.

Bush administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have defended the decision.

During a stop Monday in Birmingham, Ala., Gonzales said the administration had a “very extensive process” for reviewing such transactions that “takes into account matters of national security, takes into account concerns about port security.”

Critics have cited the UAE’s history as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, they contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.

Frustration about the ports takeover put two Maryland gubernatorial candidates on the same side of an issue.

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 the Arab-owned company.

“I believe that President’s Bush’s decision to turn over the operations of any American port is reckless,” said O’Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose Ehrlich in the Maryland governor’s race. “We are not going to turn over the Port of Baltimore to a foreign government.”

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