Bush administration officials faced more tough questions Wednesday from Democrats and Republicans over the pending U.S. ports management deal in which Dubai Ports World, based in the United Arab Emirates, would take over management of six major U.S. ports.
Another day of controversy underscored in a dramatic way how extensively opposition to the ports issue crosses political lines, and how difficult it will be for President Bush to avert more political damage from the matter.
Dubai Ports World has agreed to delay its actual management takeover at ports in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans, to allow for a new 45-day review period.
Critics accuse the Bush administration of failing to thoroughly investigate potential national security implications of the deal, a charge key government officials strongly deny.
Appearing at a House of Representatives hearing, Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt reiterated the government position that the deal was thoroughly vetted. "In contrast to some accounts, this transaction was not rushed through the review process in early February, nor was it casual and cursory," he said.
Michael Jackson, Deputy Secretary in the Department of Homeland Security added that "we had an adequate amount of time, a fully structured and resourced review of this matter."
The officials faced tough questions from lawm akers asking why aspects of the ports deal, and questions about United Arab Emirates policies toward Israel among other issues, did not trigger a more exhaustive initial review.
Republican Congresswoman Deborah Pryce says she is troubled by administration statements about the need to balance security concerns with the need to maintain global trade. "To me, and to many Americans, that statement implied that there are aspects of our nation's security that must be sacrificed at the altar of free trade. That is something that I fundamentally reject," he said.
Opposition Democrats are trying to portray the ports issue as another example of what they call secretive Bush administration management and neglect of homeland security concerns.
They devoted a weekly strategy meeting to the ports issue, after which Congressman Ed Markey had these comments. "It is part of a pattern where, whether it be chemical plants, nuclear plants, cargo, airlines, the Bush administration has allowed the industries to decide how much security is provided for the American people rather than having our government decide how much security they need," he said.
Government officials strongly deny such allegations, and insist the ports deal received an intensive review by a special multi-agency committee on foreign investment.
James Glassman, of the American Enterprise Institute, calls the intense reaction to the ports deal out of proportion to the possible risks involved. "Obviously we are all deeply troubled by the national security implications of this transaction, particularly because it was not given the highest level of priority, it was not given the highest level of consideration by the highest levels of leadership in our government," he said.
However, Congressman Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed skepticism about what he calls changing stories from the administration.
Senate Republicans joined Democrats in urging Congress to scrupulously review the ports deal. "Obviously we are all deeply troubled by the national security implications of this transaction, particularly because it was not given the highest level of priority," said Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican:
Officials told lawmakers that after the new 45-day review of the Dubai Ports World deal, a report will be sent to Congress.
However, Democrats want the Republican-controlled Congress, as part of an effort to assert oversight powers, to pass legislation placing a hold on the ports management takeover, and formally ordering a 45-day review.