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Ridge: White House should explain port deal

CNN | February 21 2006

The Bush administration should disclose more about a deal that would give a United Arab Emirates-based company management of six major U.S. seaports, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Monday.

The deal -- which will affect the ports of New York and New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Miami, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana -- has triggered security concerns among some members of Congress and the public.

The Bush administration has said the UAE is a key ally in the war on terror.

Others, however, point out that two of the September 11, 2001, hijackers were from the UAE. In addition, most of the hijackers received money channeled through various sources based in the UAE, according to the Justice Department and the 9/11 Commission.

Earlier this month, shareholders of the U.K.-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) approved the company's acquisition by Thunder FZE, a subsidiary of Dubai-based Dubai Ports World.

P&O directs commercial operations at the six U.S. ports. The takeover by DPW means that the Dubai company will be in charge of those operations.

On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, held a news conference with relatives of some of those killed in the terrorist attacks, and denounced the takeover. (Watch lawmakers call for deal to be stopped -- 2:55)

"Outsourcing the operation of our largest ports to a country with long involvement in terrorism is a homeland security accident waiting to happen," he said.

Other members of Congress have also been critical of the deal. On Friday, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Hillary Clinton of New York announced they were working on legislation that would ban companies owned by foreign governments from controlling operations at U.S. ports.

Some Republican lawmakers have also expressed concern over the deal, including New York Rep. Peter King and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"We certainly should investigate it," Graham said Sunday on Fox News.

A Dubai Ports World spokesman told CNN that the firm has received all the necessary regulatory approvals, and that the security systems in place at the ports would only get better under the new management.

"All DP World ports are [International Security Port System] certified, as are any P&O ports in the U.S.," the spokesman said. "We intend to maintain or enhance current security arrangements, and this is business as usual for the P&O terminals."

Michael Seymour, the president of P&O's North American operations, said the company "has long worked with U.S. government officials in charge of security at the ports to meet all U.S. government standards."

"We are confident that the DP World purchase will ensure that our operations will continue to meet all relevant standards," he said.

Ridge said that during his tenure as secretary of Homeland Security from October 2001 to February 2005, he sat in on deals with similar national security concerns, and that he believes U.S. officials would not jeopardize national security.

But he also told CNN, "I think the anxiety and the concern [over the deal] that has been expressed by congressmen and senators and elsewhere is legitimate."

Industry official alleges 'racism'
A port security expert, meanwhile, told CNN that fears that the agreement will reduce U.S. security are based on "bigotry" and that "shameless" politicians are creating an issue they think will resonate with the public.

Kim Petersen, head of SeaSecure, a U.S.-based maritime security company, and executive director of the Maritime Security Council -- which represents 70 percent of the world's ocean shipping -- told CNN, "This whole notion that Dubai is going to control or set standards for U.S. ports is a canard ... is factually false."

Dubai Ports World, like all port owners, must abide by the Maritime Transportation Security Act passed by Congress in 2002 and International Ship and Port Facility Security codes enacted in 2004, he said. Both sets of security measures are enforced in the United States by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Petersen said DPW will be under "identical" security obligations, and said opposition to the purchase "comes down to bigotry [against] Arabs, which is one of the last acts of racism that is allowed by American society."

Petersen said the company has an "exemplary" record of security compliance certification.

Michael Chertoff, Ridge's successor as homeland security secretary, defended the deal in appearances on talk shows Sunday. He said federal law required a review of the sale by a committee that includes officials from the Homeland Security, Treasury and Commerce departments, along with the FBI and the Pentagon.

"We examine the transaction; we look at what the issue of the threat is. If necessary, we build in conditions or requirements that, for extra security, would have to be met in order to make sure that there isn't a compromise to national security," Chertoff said on CNN's "Late Edition."

An FBI spokesman who asked not to be identified by name, however, said, "The FBI general counsel sits on the inter-agency board. We looked at it, and in this case, since it was a port issue, we deferred to the Department of Homeland Security."

Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, also said the proposal went through a thorough security review.

"There is a longstanding partnership between our two countries," she told CNN.

And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a roundtable with Arab print journalists last week, said of the deal, "there was a thorough review. It was decided that this could be done and done safely."

Ridge: 'Transparency' needed
But Ridge said, "The bottom line is, I think we need a little bit more transparency here. There are some legitimate concerns about who would be in charge of hiring and firing, security measures, added technology in these ports that we'll need to upgrade our security.

"So I think it's very appropriate for the administration to go to the Hill and explain why they think they have not compromised security and, in fact, as they've announced, they will enhance and improve security," he said. "It's tough to see that right now on the surface."

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