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Homeland Security objected at first to ports deal

Sunday, February 26, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The Homeland Security Department objected at first to a United Arab Emirates company's taking over significant operations at six U.S. ports. It was the lone protest among members of the government committee that eventually approved the deal without dissent.

The department's early objections were settled later in the government's review of the $6.8 billion deal after Dubai-owned DP World agreed to a series of security restrictions.

The company indefinitely has postponed its takeover to give President Bush time to convince Congress that the deal does not pose any increased risks to the U.S. from terrorism.

Some lawmakers have pressed for a new and intensive review. Despite persistent criticism from Republicans and Democrats, the president has defended his administration's approval of the ports deal and threatened to veto any measures in Congress that would block it. Hearings are to continue this week.

A DP World executive said the company would agree to tougher security restrictions to win congressional support only if the same restrictions applied to all U.S. port operators. The company earlier had struck a more conciliatory stance, saying it would do whatever Bush asked to salvage the agreement.

"Security is everybody's business," senior vice president Michael Moore told The Associated Press. "We're going to have a very open mind to legitimate concerns. But anything we can do, any way to improve security, should apply to everybody equally."

The administration approved the ports deal on Jan. 17 after DP World agreed during secret negotiations to cooperate with law enforcement investigations in the future and make other concessions.

Some lawmakers have challenged the adequacy of a classified intelligence assessment crucial to assuring the administration that the deal was proper. The report was assembled during four weeks in November by analysts working for the director of national intelligence.

The report concluded that U.S. spy agencies were "unable to locate any derogatory information on the company," according to a person familiar with the document. This person spoke only on condition of anonymity because the report was classified.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and others have complained that the intelligence report focused only on information the agencies collected about DP World and did not examine reported links between UAE government officials and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The uproar over DP World has exposed how the government routinely approves deals involving national security without the input of senior administration officials or Congress.

President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and even Treasury Secretary John Snow, who oversees the government committee that approved the deal, all say they did not know about the purchase until after it was finalized. The work was done mostly by assistant secretaries.

Snow now says he may consider changes in the approval process so lawmakers are better alerted after such deals get the go-ahead.

Stewart Baker, a senior Homeland Security official, said he was the sole representative on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States who objected to the ports deal. Baker said he later changed his vote after DP World agreed to the security conditions. Other officials confirmed Baker's account.

"We were not prepared to sign off on the deal without the successful negotiation of the assurances," Baker told the AP.

Officials from the White House, CIA, departments of State, Treasury, Justices, and others looked for guidance from Homeland Security because it is responsible for seaports. "We had the most obvious stake in the process," Baker said.

Baker acknowledged that a government audit of security practices at the U.S. ports in the takeover has not been completed as part of the deal. "We had the authority to do an audit earlier," Baker said.

The audit will help evaluate DP World's security programs to stop smuggling and detect illegal shipments of nuclear materials at its seaport operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

The administration privately disclosed the status of the security audit to senators during meetings about improving reviews of future business deals involving foreign buyers. Officials did not suggest the audit's earlier completion would have affected the deal's approval.

New Jersey's Democratic governor, who is suing to block the deal, said in his party's weekly radio address on Saturday that the administration failed to properly investigate the UAE's record on terrorism.

"We were told that the president didn't know about the sale until after it was approved. For many Americans, regardless of party, this lack of disciplined review is unacceptable," Jon Corzine said.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said there was no going back on the deal.


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