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Can Bush save U.A.E. port deal

Tim Russert, NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press," discusses the plan to allow a Arab company to run portions of six major U.S. ports.

MSNBC: Tim, the surprise announcement by the state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates that it will delay its takeover of operations at six U.S. ports has relieved some of the pressure between President Bush and Congress on this controversial deal. But some are now wondering if this decision-making process needs to be opened up.

Tim Russert: That was certainly the view of Peter King, the Republican congressman form New York, who said this had been rushed through and not been properly scrutinized.

The White House is now trying buy some time. Clearly they’ve orchestrated this response from the company in Dubai to say, “Let’s just go forward with the purchase but don’t take over operations until we have time to sit down with Congress and explain why we are not a security risk.”

I still think there will be some in Congress who will not want to go forward. This is now a numbers game. The president needs to have support from one-third of either the Senate or the House, which would sustain his veto, if that’s what comes to be.

MSNBC: How can everyone in the 14 federal agencies involved in this port deal be so unaware the kind of reaction a headline that says “Arabs taking over U.S. ports” would cause?

Russert: And three Cabinet secretaries were saying, “I know nothing!”

Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, feel they were shut out of this process. Frustration has been building in both parties regarding lack of consultation on major issues. Democrats seized on this one. Republicans said, “Wait a minute. We can’t let the Democrats get to our right on homeland security and terrorism. The president taught us how successful you can be at the polls if you’re perceived as tougher on terrorism.”

So you have a bipartisan uproar.

MSNBC: Many experts involved intimately in the operation of these ports and security around the ports don’t seem to share the kind of reaction that has occurred in many places. On the other hand, even the administration’s most ardent supporters are saying, “Why can’t there be a level of transparency and accountability in the process.”

Russert: One-third of the ports in the United States are operated by foreign companies, so it’s not something that’s new. It is the fact that these are six big harbors and ports and the United Arab Emirates is an Arab country. That’s what set off the bells. Everyone remembers very well that two of the 9/11 hijackers came from the U.A.E. and that the money used to fund that operation passed through banks in Dubai.

I do think the process will be changed. I think there will be a debate over whether ports should be like airports – where we don’t have foreign companies running them.

I also think there will be a heightened awareness and attempts to improve security with shipping cargo. That would be a positive step.

MSNBC: Even if the process is improved, aren’t there so many other ways port security is vulnerable that the home country of the company managing the terminals almost doesn’t matter?

Russert: Absolutely. Who is loading these ships before they head for our shores? Many come from places like Dubai and China. And when only 5 or 6 percent are truly inspected, America is vulnerable. There’s no doubt about it.

MSNBC: America has spent so much money on homeland security since 9/11, why is it that a busy port like Hong Kong can inspect all of its cargo and that can’t be done anywhere in the United States?

Russert: That’s a great question. We still are in a situation where the police, fire and rescue squads in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia are still don’t have communication systems that are compatible with each other. Five years after September 11th, we don’t have a coordinated system. It just numbs the mind and its something this country has to focus on. Everyone I talk to — Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative — believe there will be another terrorist attack in America. Are we ready?

MSNBC: If the U.S. rejects the Dubai deal, what message does that send to the current an potential allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds?

Russert: That’s President Bush’s biggest fear, because he believes the United Arab Emirates has turned the corner. Even though 9/11 hijackers and money that paid for 9/11 came through there — the U.A.E. has become an ally. The president is saying you can’t have a double standard — one for Arab countries and one for older allies.

Others in Congress say, “This is nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing who you trust more.”

It’s an amazing debate to watch, because normally these things are so partisan between Democrats and Republicans. That’s not the case here.

MSNBC: Do you think this deal is doomed?

Russert: No, I don’t, because even if Congress passes legislation stopping this, President Bush can veto it. As I said, he would only need one-third of either the Senate or the House to go along with it. That means 34 U.S. Senators. And I believe this president is still able to get 34 Republicans in the Senate or a third of the House in order to accommodate his view.

MSNBC: Will you be talking about this Sunday on "Meet the Press"?

Russert: We sure will. We’re going to talk to the man who started this congressional rebellion, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and find out if he’s satisfied with these latest developments. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Armed Services committee, who’s been defending the president, will also join us. Warner has very strong views on what’s happening in Iraq. Are we close to civil war?

Then the Republican governor from California is coming to town for the governors’ conference.  Arnold Schwarzenegger will be here. He was shellacked at the polls when all four of the initiatives he was backing lost last fall. He’s now trying to make a bit of a political comeback.

Peter King, John Warner and Arnold Schwarzenegger – three exclusive interviews on "Meet the Press."

We’re also on as a special time this Sunday, due to NBC’s Olympic coverage – 11 a.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones and 10 a.m. in the Central. You’ll want to check our Web site or your local listings for the broadcast time in your area.