WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
Meanwhile, a London judge said he would rule Thursday on a Miami company’s challenge to DP World of Dubai’s takeover.
Justice Nicholas Warren of Britain’s High Court said Tuesday he needed time to consider the arguments presented by both Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., the British port operator also known as P&O, and Eller & Co., the Miami-based cargo handler, which claims fears about an Arab company operating American ports would substantially hurt its operations.
The administration’s approval of the deal has caused an uproar from Republicans and Democrats in Congress who say that it could open the country to terrorist dangers. Lawmakers criticized the deal anew Tuesday, despite Republican leaders’ hopes that the furor had diminished.
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 generate a report submitted to the president, who will have 15 days to decide whether to approve it.
Bush: New probe will have same outcome
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 it’s OK for a British company to manage 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, 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.
Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told an Armed Services Committee hearing. committee he was not aware of the Coast Guard memo citing "many intelligence gaps" in the port deal.
Negroponte said the Coast Guard report was submitted to the administration after his department submitted its report, "so we were not aware of that specific report."
The Defense Intelligence Agency also revealed that in its inquiry the agency had done a risk assessment specifically related to technology transfer, but had not assessed the risk of a foreign government operating domestic ports. "Not per se, no sir," said Lt. General Michael Maples told Senator Levin.
Another line of criticism came from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who keyed in on the company's state-owned status, in a nation that actively boycotts Israel.
The parent company of the firm, Dubai Ports World, is entirely owned by the Government of Dubai via a holding company called the Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation.
In a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on the ports deal on Tuesday she grilled COO of DP World, Ted Bilkey, on his company's role in enforcing the boycott.
'Many unanswered questions'
But House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., 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, D-Md., 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.
Bill Clinton: Process for ports 'too secretive'
Elsewhere in Washington, former President Bill Clinton told reporters at a meeting of the nation’s 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,” 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 introduce legislation Tuesday that could give Congress an opportunity to block the deal if lawmakers are dissatisfied with the results of an investigation but he suggested he’s unlikely to push for an immediate vote. “It has to be a weapon held in reserve to assure there is a real investigation,” King said.
GOP unity threatened
A bipartisan group of senators have introduced the same measure in the Senate. Some Senate Republicans said the fresh investigation — brokered by congressional GOP leaders to quell the political outcry — wasn’t sufficient.
“While it’s a step in the right direction to undertake the 45-day review, Congress must have the opportunity to actually examine that report and vote within 30 days to disapprove the sale,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in remarks prepared for delivery before the Senate Commerce Committee later Tuesday.
Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during that panel’s hearing on threats to national security that he found “flaws” in the Bush administration’s earlier consideration of the ports deal.
But Warner, R-Va., expressed optimism the government will approve the transaction after a lengthier investigation and he praised the “high degree of mutual trust” between the United Arab Emirates and United States.
On Monday, Sen. Susan Collins, the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, disclosed the Coast Guard document during a hearing and said she was “more convinced than ever that the process was truly flawed.”
In February, the Commerce Committee vetted the appointment of David C. Sanborn of Virginia, a senior DP World executive, to be the new administrator of the Maritime Administration of the Transportation Department.
The White House appointed Sanborn, who worked as DP World’s director of operations for Europe and Latin America, to the post in January, the same month the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved the DP World takeover.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.