Lawmaker faults port study


WASHINGTON -- A key Republican said yesterday that Treasury and Homeland Security officials privately told him the initial review of the firm planning to take over some operations at six major U.S. seaports was far less thorough than described by administration officials in later statements.

In an interview with CNN, New York Rep. Peter T. King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that there was "no investigation into terrorism whatsoever" in the review done by an administration committee examining the potential national security threats posed by the sale of British-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World, which is state-owned.

His account - based on discussions he said took place when government approval of the deal became public last month - seemed to contradict the repeated testimony of administration officials, including Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, who have said repeatedly that the probe resolved any national security questions.

P&O; runs some terminal operations in Baltimore; New York; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; New Orleans and Miami.

In response to blistering criticism from Congress and the public, DP World agreed last weekend to a second, more in-depth review of the deal and to segregate the U.S. holdings involved until it is completed.

The White House has said it welcomes the extra time to "educate" Congress about the deal, and it has dispatched officials to Capitol Hill for public and private briefings aimed at calming their concerns. Two more public hearings are scheduled for today.

But some lawmakers are still skeptical and have introduced bills in both the House and Senate that would give Congress the power to veto the sale if their concerns aren't satisfied by the additional review.

"If we find out after 10 days that we're getting stiff-armed, we may have to move in," King said in an interview yesterday, adding that he preferred the situation to be resolved without legislation.

King scoffed at what he called the administration's "condescending" attitude toward Congress - especially as many of the people discussing the sale were themselves unaware of the transaction until it made news.

"What are they going to educate us on?" he asked. "First, they ought to educate themselves."

The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States signed off on the deal in mid-January. At congressional hearings, administration officials have said the panel considered reports from multiple intelligence agencies and national security concerns were fully examined.

On CNN, King said officials told him that the intelligence reports did not include efforts to look for links between DP World and terrorist organizations.

A Senate aide who has read those intelligence evaluations, and been briefed by the administration, told The Sun this week that those reports looked mainly at how much of a threat the company itself might pose, without looking at security vulnerabilities in American ports.

Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is pushing legislation that would bar companies owned by a foreign government from buying into American seaports, said there is still momentum behind the questions about the deal.

"I think the administration is trying to cool this down, and I understand that," said Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "But it defies common sense out on the streets, and people don't understand why this is happening."

Cardin's partner on the bill, Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida, agreed.

"The concern has not gone away," Shaw said. "This is still a very sensitive issue."

Democrats seized on the DP World controversy yesterday, using it to decry what they called the Bush administration's neglect of port security.

"This port deal is an example of the cronyism and backroom deals of this administration," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "The American people don't understand why we can't make our own ports secure. They want answers from the Bush administration, and so do the Democrats."

But complaints about port security are an issue that crosses party lines - and yesterday, lawmakers from both parties questioned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the persistent vulnerabilities at U.S. seaports. Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, said the budget recently proposed by the administration "shortchanges port security."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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