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Lawmakers Press US Officials on UAE Ports Deal

U.S. officials testifying in an open congressional hearing have told Congress the sale of a British shipping management company to a company based in the United Arab Emirates does not pose risks to national security. Some lawmakers are pressing ahead with legislation that would force a review of the government's approval of the deal.

The hearing was more of a briefing, as it occurred while most lawmakers remained out of Washington on a week-long break, and included questions from the media.

Republican Senator John Warner stressed the importance of getting all the facts. "Every single one of us in this room and all across the United States, most importantly our president, shares the same goal - ensuring our national security," he said.

Although Dubai Ports World, the company that purchased British-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, is owned by the United Arab Emirates government, it is managed by an American firm and operates terminals in 15 countries on five continents.

Singapore, Denmark, Japan and Taiwan also operate terminals at 11 other U.S. ports.

U.S. officials echoed the Bush administration's position that the U.A.E. is a strong partner with the United States in the war on terrorism. "The U.A.E. is a key partner in the war on terror. It does provide outstanding support to U.S. and coalition forces, air forces and naval forces, in their operation involving Iraq. It also provides vital military and political support to our efforts in Afghanistan, as well as humanitarian support in both Iraq and Afghanistan," said Robert Joseph, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control.

Officials also rejected criticisms of many lawmakers that the approval process was rushed or conducted in secret.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England says the port management deal was extensively reviewed at numerous levels in the Defense Department. "We had a very comprehensive and in depth review of this transaction and no issues were raised by any of those agencies or departments within the Department of Defense," he said.

More fuel was thrown into the political firestorm this week after President Bush acknowledged he was not aware of the government's approval of the deal until recently.

Congressional critics have focused on what they call the uneven record of the U.A.E. in combating terrorism since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Criticisms include the role U.A.E banks played in financial transactions of two of 19 al-Qaida hijackers, close ties with the former Taleban government in Afghanistan, and U.A.E. involvement in the nuclear smuggling network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

The independent commission that investigated the 2001 attacks said the U.A.E. government ignored U.S. pressure to crack down on terrorist financing, describing the U.A.E. as a valued counter-terrorism ally, but also a persistent counter-terrorism problem.

Senate Democrat Carl Levin is among those pushing for a delay so Congress can conduct inquiries. "What is deeply troubling to me about this proposed sale is the combination of one of America's greatest vulnerabilities to terrorist attack, our ports, with what appears to me to be a casual approach to reviewing the sale of U.S. port facilities to a country with an uneven record of combating terrorism," he said.

U.S Customs and Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard, will continue to control security in [the ports of] New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Miami.

Since 2001, hundreds of millions of dollars have been devoted to strengthening port security, with new imaging and radiation screening technologies deployed to inspect containers.

Under a program called the Container Security Initiative, U.S. authorities work with foreign customs services to identify and examine high-risk cargo before it embarks for the U.S.

Jayson Ahearn, Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, calls an often-heard statistic that only five percent of containers are inspected upon arrival in the U.S. misleading. "We look at 100-percent of every container, the information, coming into this country, assess that for risk, making sure we focus our technology and resources through a layered approach, to focus on those containers that pose a significant risk, and not to stifle the global trade of this country," he said.

As early as next week, other congressional committees plan hearings on the port management controversy, as lawmakers push ahead with legislation to force a review.

Senator Hillary Clinton is among Democrats urging that government-owned entities be banned from controlling, owning and managing U.S. ports. "This is not in any way directed at any particular country, but as a matter of national security in the post-9/11 world, I think we have to take a hard look at this," he said.

President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that would keep the U.A.E. deal from going through.

Senator Warner says the Bush administration needs to cooperate fully with Congress.