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White House Stands by Port Deal


The White House is bracing for a major fight with Congress over a decision to allow a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates to manage commercial shipping operations at six major U.S. ports. Officials say all security concerns related to the deal have been resolved.

This is perhaps the biggest split to date involving President Bush and top members of his own Republican Party.

It involves the operating contract for six of the largest ports in the United States. A British firm has been running these port terminals. But it is in the process of being sold to the U.A.E.-owned Dubai Ports World.

A high-level panel, comprised of officials from 12 federal agencies, reviewed the sale and gave its approval. White House Spokesman Scott McClellan says all the cabinet secretaries involved were comfortable with the decision. He says critics do not really understand the deal.

"This is not about control of our ports," said Scott McClellan. "This is not about the security of our ports. And let me be very clear. One thing we will never do is outsource to anyone the control and security of our ports."

McClellan stresses security remains the top priority of the president, though he acknowledges Mr. Bush was not told about the decision to approve the deal until after it was made.

Critics question the wisdom of contracting port management to a state-owned firm from a country that recognized the Taleban, and which has ties to some of the terrorists involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have sided with leading Democrats on this issue, as have the Republican governors of two port states, New York and Maryland.

They have focused on the deal itself, while the Democrats have talked more about a pattern of behavior by the Bush administration.

Joseph Biden is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He spoke on the ABC television program Good Morning America.

"This is an administration that has gotten a failing grade from the 9-11 Commission for port security, and two years in a row tried to cut money for port security," said Joseph Biden. "So when they say trust us, don't worry about the security, the truth is we don't trust them based upon the record."

When asked by reporters about the split between the president and members of the legislature, McClellan said perhaps the White House should have consulted Congress earlier.

"In hindsight, when you look at this and the coverage it has received and the false impression it has left with some, we probably should have briefed members of Congress about it sooner," he said.

Several prominent lawmakers are proposing legislation to block the sale. President Bush has said he will veto any such measure.