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Democrats hit Bush on security, seek ports review

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) Democrats have accused US President George W. Bush of being casual with US security as they warned of risks from a deal in which an Arab, state-owned company would gain control of six key US ports.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, in the Democratic weekly radio address, urged Bush to pose tough questions during a delay of Dubai Ports World's .8 billion acquisition of P&O, even as a top White House official said there was no need to re-open the government's review.

''We cannot afford to let this administration be stubborn in their mistakes and casual about our security,'' Corzine said.

''Every homeland security expert identifies protecting our nation's ports as one of our greatest unmet security challenges.'' DP World said this week it would proceed with the takeover of the British P&O company -- making it the world's third largest port operator -- but not the management of the U.S.

ports while it discusses security concerns.

''But what we need is not a token delay, but a serious review,'' Corzine said. Already lawsuits have been filed to block the deal, including by the state of New Jersey which is concerned about its Port Newark terminal.

A DP World executive also said it was open to additional safeguards for U.S. ports if asked.

Democrats and some members of Bush's own Republican Party have hammered the administration for approving the transaction, citing evidence that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, and that al Qaeda funding went via UAE banks.

The White House bristled at any suggestion that Bush was lax on security.

''This president's highest priority is protecting the homeland. He has done so and will continue to do so, and anyone who suggests otherwise is at best ill-informed,'' said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius.

The Bush administration has acknowledged it should have done more to inform Congress about the deal, but said security commitments made by DP World resolved concerns about a foreign, government-backed firm controlling U.S. ports.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency panel led by the U.S. Treasury Department that examines national security implications of foreign takeovers of U.S. assets, approved the transaction last month.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said there were no plans to re-open the review, adding: ''It's been completed.'' Still, DP World's Senior Vice President Michael Moore told Reuters late Friday that the company would consider additional security guarantees if requested. The company already made some assurances such as participating in cargo inspection programs.

''We're going to be very open. ... There's no reason for us, you know, not to have an open mind,'' he said.

Bush has seen security as a winning political issue for Republicans, particularly ahead of the November mid-term elections. But Democrats have seized on the ports issue to raise doubts about his ability to keep America safe.

A Rasmussen Reports poll showed that Democrats in Congress have edged ahead of Bush, 43 percent to 41 percent, when it comes to who Americans trust more on national security issues.

Some lawmakers have vowed to pass legislation that would block the deal, but Bush has threatened to veto the measure and said the UAE is a key partner in combating terrorism.

Reuters SK VP0427

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