Bush: Ports Deal Not a Security Threat

President says security had already been considered during committee proceedings


President Bush on Thursday sought to calm an uproar over an Arab company taking over operations at six major American ports, saying "people don't need to worry about security."

Under a secretive agreement with the administration, a company in the United Arab Emirates promised to cooperate with U.S. investigations as a condition of its takeover of operations at six major American ports, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.S. government chose not to impose other, routine restrictions.

"The more people learn about the transaction," Bush said, "the more they'll be comforted that the ports will be secure." He spoke to reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting.

In approving the $6.8 billion purchase, the administration chose not to require state-owned Dubai Ports World to keep copies of its business records on U.S. soil, where they would be subject to orders by American courts. It also did not require the company to designate an American citizen to accommodate requests by the government.

Outside legal experts said such obligations are routinely attached to U.S. approvals of foreign sales in other industries.

Bush said he was struck by the fact that people were not concerned about port security when a British company was running the port operation, but they felt differently about an Arab company at the helm. He said the United Arab Emirates was a valuable partner in the war in terror and cautioned against sending "mixed messages" as the U.S. works with countries in fighting terrorism.

He said his administration would continue talks with members of Congress - Republicans and Democrats alike - who have rebelled against the takeover. He said the briefings were "bringing a sense of calm to this issue."

"This wouldn't be going forwad if we weren't certain our ports would be secure," the president said.

Dubai Ports agreed to give up records on demand about "foreign operational direction" of its business at the U.S. ports, according to the documents. Those records broadly include details about the design, maintenance or operation of ports and equipment. It also pledged to continue participating in programs to stop smuggling and detect illegal shipments of nuclear materials.

"They're not lax but they're not draconian," said James Lewis, a former U.S. official who worked on such agreements. If White House officials negotiating the deal had predicted the firestorm of criticism over it, "they might have made them sound harder."

The conditions over the sale of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. were detailed in U.S. documents marked "confidential." Such records are regularly guarded as trade secrets, and it is highly unusual for them to be made public.

The Republican head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of Virginia, planned an oversight hearing Thursday. Warner has expressed support for the agreement, describing the UAE as an important ally against terrorism.

Rep. Peter King of New York, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the conditions are evidence the Bush administration was concerned about security. "There is a very serious question as to why the records are not going to be maintained on American soil subject to American jurisdiction," King said.

Another critic, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., added: "These new revelations ask more questions than they answer."

The disclosure of the negotiated conditions came as the White House acknowledged Bush was unaware of the pending sale until the deal had been already approved by his administration.

Bush has pledged to veto any bill Congress might approve to block the agreement, but some lawmakers said they still were determined to capsize it.

Dubai Port's top American executive, chief operating officer Edward H. Bilkey, said he will work in Washington to persuade skeptical lawmakers they should endorse the deal; several Senate oversight hearings already are scheduled.

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