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US leaders face Congress critics of port deal

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Feb 24 (Reuters) The Bush administration was too hasty and inadequately attentive to security when it let a state-owned Arab firm acquire terminal management at six major U.S. ports, Democrats has said at a Senate briefing.

Senior administration officials from the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury and Homeland Security appeared before the hastily called Senate committee briefing to give assurances over the deal for Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates to buy the US port operations of British firm P&O.

Democrats questioned the level of security scrutiny, given that top government leadership was uninvolved in the deal's approval and that the vetting panel had rejected only one deal among the 1,500 it had reviewed since 1988. Just 25 deals had required a second-level, 45-day review.

''What is deeply troubling to me about this proposed sale is the combination of one of America's vulnerabilities to terrorist attack, our ports, with what appears to me to be a casual approach to reviewing the sale of U.S. port facilities to a country with an uneven record of combating terrorism,'' Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, told the briefing yesterday.

''The American people need to have confidence that the port deal won't undermine national security and that the administration isn't outsourcing our national security,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee which held the briefing, said he also had pointed out failings.

But Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England said the scrutiny was thorough. ''This review definitely was not cursory and it definitely was not casual. Rather it was in-depth and comprehensive,'' England said.

The deal, due to take effect next week, has sparked a storm of bipartisan criticism among lawmakers who fear it threatens security and were angered over not being informed earlier.

The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States gave its nod in January after one official meeting, Assistant Treasury Secretary for International Affairs Clay Lowery said.

ADDRESSING CONCERNS Warner said he told the administration it needed to put out ''a full and complete factual picture'' of the deal's approval.

Levin and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York said the administration skipped what should have been a required 45-day review of the deal. Administration officials said all security concerns had been addressed in the initial review.

Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert Kimmitt said the case could not be reopened without evidence of false or misleading information.

England told the briefing the UAE deserved to be trusted.

He called it ''a friend and ally of the United States, and they do stand side by side with us in this war on terror.'' He said the Gulf Arab state had given the U.S. military unprecedented access, overflight clearance and a great deal of logistical support in regional operations.

US officials say the UAE has worked to close loopholes that allowed September 11 conspirators to use it as a logistics hub and conduit for funds.

President George W. Bush, who has vowed to veto any legislative attempts to intervene, said at the White House, ''What I find interesting is that it's OK for a British company to manage some ports, but not OK for a company from a country that is also a valuable ally in the war on terror.'' Clinton said there was ''a significant difference'' between a private company and a foreign-government entity.

Reuters PDS VP0504

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