As President Bush stood behind the transfer of some U.S. port operations to a United Arab Emirates company, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continued yesterday to distance himself from the White House and a decision he denounced as the product of "an overly secretive process."
Ehrlich, who broke with the Bush administration over the issue Monday, visited the port yesterday to restate his objections to a transaction that would put Dubai Ports World in charge of stevedoring operations at Seagirt Marine Terminal.
During an afternoon news conference, the Republican governor said "no one is happy" that federal officials did not notify local authorities about approving the sale of the British company that handles cargo at the Baltimore terminal and at five other U.S. ports. Ehrlich called for congressional oversight hearings to examine the decision.
The governor denied that he had lost confidence in the Bush administration's handling of homeland security matters. Instead of threatening to cancel the port's contract with the stevedoring company, he stressed the need for additional information before making any decision.
"Everybody needs to step back and take a look at certain issues," the governor said during a news conference across from Seagirt.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is running for the Democratic nomination to oppose Ehrlich in November, kept up his criticism of the Bush administration's homeland security efforts.
O'Malley, who said he took part in a conference call with federal officials about the transaction yesterday, said he was "flabbergasted" by the explanations he heard for why the administration approved the sale to the government-controlled Dubai company.
"We're being told they're allies and we should trust them," said O'Malley. "It was one of the most bizarre conference calls I have heard while serving as mayor."
Within the past week, the sale of the British company Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World has sprung off the business pages and onto front pages around the country as politicians of both parties have distanced themselves from the Bush administration's decision.
In Maryland and elsewhere, the deal has been described in sensational terms.
At least one Baltimore television station described the transaction as the sale of the port of Baltimore to an Arab country.
O'Malley has denounced what he has called "this outrageous decision to turn over the operations of our port to a foreign government."
Ehrlich complained yesterday about the language used to describe the deal. "Never has the port been for sale," he said.
Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, said P&O; holds a contract - which could be transferred to the Dubai company - to do all loading and unloading at Seagirt and some stevedoring at Dundalk Marine Terminal.
Scher said P&O; is strictly a container-handling company and has no role in the roll-on, roll-off sector of cargo - in which the port of Baltimore leads the nation - or in the handling of automobiles or commodities.
O'Malley said he does not find the more limited description of the Dubai company's potential role reassuring. "Really, it's the container traffic that's the greatest security vulnerability," he said.