The Bush administration on Thursday rebuffed criticism about potential security risks of a $6.8 billion sale that gives a company in the United Arab Emirates control over significant operations at six major American ports.
Lawmakers asked the White House to reconsider its earlier approval of the deal.
The sale to state-owned Dubai Ports World was “rigorously reviewed” by a U.S. committee that considers security threats when foreign companies seek to buy or invest in American industry, National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, run by the Treasury Department, reviewed an assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies. The committee’s 12 members agreed unanimously that the sale did not present any problems, the department said.
“We wanted to look at this one quite closely because it relates to ports,” Stewart Baker, an assistant secretary in the Homeland Security Department said in an interview.
“It is important to focus on this partner as opposed to just what part of the world they come from. We came to the conclusion that the transaction should not be halted.”
The unusual defense of the secretive committee, which reviews hundreds of such deals each year, came in response to criticism about the purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
The world’s fourth-largest ports company runs commercial operations at shipping terminals in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
Four senators and three House members asked the administration Thursday to reconsider its approval. The lawmakers contended the UAE was not consistent in its support of U.S. terrorism-fighting efforts.
“The potential threat to our country is not imagined, it is real,” Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said in a House speech.
The Homeland Security Department said it was legally impossible under the committee’s rules to reconsider its approval without evidence DP World gave false information or withheld vital details from U.S. officials. The 30-day window for the committee to voice objections has ended.
“We intend to maintain and, where appropriate, enhance current security arrangements,” the company said in a statement. “It is very much business as usual for the P&O; terminals” in the United States.
In Dubai, the UAE’s foreign minister described his country as an important U.S. ally but declined to respond directly to the concerns expressed in Washington.
“We have worked very closely with the United States on a number of issues relating to the combat of terrorism, prior to and post-Sept. 11,” said Sheik Abdullah Bin Zayed al Nahyan.
Critics have cited the UAE’s history as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Outsourcing the operations of our largest ports to a country with a dubious record on terrorism is a [domestic] security and commerce accident waiting to happen,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “The administration needs to take another look at this deal.”
Separately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said Thursday it would conduct its own review of the deal and urged the government to defend its decision.
In a letter to the Treasury Department, Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia said the independent review by his agency was necessary “to protect its interests.”
The lawmakers pressing the White House to reconsider included Sens. Schumer, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), and Reps. Foley, Vito J. Fossella (R-N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)