U.S. terms for approving an Arab company’s takeover of operations at six major American ports are insufficient to guard against terrorist infiltration, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said Sunday.
"I’m aware of the conditions and they relate entirely to how the company carries out its procedures, but it doesn’t go to who they hire, or how they hire people," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told The Associated Press.
"They’re better than nothing, but to me they don’t address the underlying conditions, which is how are they going to guard against things like infiltration by al-Qaida or someone else, how are they going to guard against corruption?" King said.
King spoke in response to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s comments Sunday about conditions of the sale. King said he learned about the government’s terms for approving the sale from meetings with senior Bush administration officials.
Chertoff defended the security review of Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates, the company given permission to take over the port operations. Chertoff said the government typically builds in "certain conditions or requirements that the company has to agree to make sure we address the national security concerns." But Chertoff declined to discuss specifics saying that information is classified.
"We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint," Chertoff said on ABC’s "This Week."
London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., was bought last week by DP World, a state-owned business. Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
A Miami company, Continental Stevedoring & Terminals Inc., has filed suit in a Florida court challenging the deal. A subsidiary of Eller & Company Inc., the Miami company maintains it the suit disclosed Saturday evening that it will become an "involuntary partner" with Dubai’s government under the sale.
"We are aware of the lawsuit, but cannot comment until our legal teams have a chance to review it," Michael Seymour, president of the North American arm of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, said Sunday in the company’s initial response to the lawsuit.
He noted that his company "is itself a foreign-owned terminal operator that has long worked with U.S. government officials in charge of security at the ports to meet all U.S. government standards, as do other foreign companies that currently operate ports in the United States."
"We are confident that the DP World purchase will ensure that our operations continue to meet all relevant standards in the U.S. through ongoing collaboration between the port operators and American, British, Australian and port security officials throughout the world," Seymour said in a statement telephoned to the AP.
Lawmakers from both parties are questioning the sale as a possible risk to national security.
"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," Graham said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, on CBS’ "Face the Nation," said, "It is ridiculous to say you’re taking secret steps to make sure that it’s OK for a nation that had ties to 9/11, (to) take over part of our port operations in many of our largest ports. This has to stop."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab journalists in an interview Friday at the State Department, that it was "the considered opinion of the U.S. government that this can go forward." She pledged to work with Congress because "perhaps people will need better explanation and will need to understand some of the process that we have gone through."
At least one Senate oversight hearing is planned for later this month.
"Congress is welcome to look at this and can get classified briefings," Chertoff told CNN’s "Late Edition." "We have to balance the paramount urgency of security against the fact that we still want to have a robust global trading system," he added.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is working on legislation to prohibit companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from running port operation in the U.S., said Chertoff’s comments showed him that the administration "just does not get it."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. joined some family members of Sept. 11 victims at a news conference Sunday to urge President Bush to personally intervene. The president "should override the agreement and conduct a special investigation into the matter," Schumer said.
Dubai Ports World should not be excluded automatically from such a deal because it is based in the UAE, Chertoff said.
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.
Dubai Ports World has said it intends to "maintain and, where appropriate, enhance current security arrangements." The UAE’s foreign minister has described his country as an important U.S. ally in fighting terrorism.
"I would hope that our friends in Abu Dhabi would not be offended by the fact that in our democracy, we debate these things," Rice said in the interview with the Arab journalists.