Bush threatens veto -- his first -- over port deal

Facing bipartisan opposition in Congress, the president says he'll go to the mat to turn over control of U.S. ports to a Dubai company.

Published February 21, 2006 9:16PM (EST)

With Republicans in control of Congress -- and "signing statements" by which he can purport to write the meaning out of most legislation -- George W. Bush has never had occasion to veto an act of Congress. That may change soon: Republicans and Democrats in Congress are threatening to block the Bush administration from approving a deal that will turn over control of six U.S. ports to a Dubai company, and Bush says he'll exercise his veto power if they do.

A British company, P&O, has long run operations at the ports in Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York and New Jersey. But P&O is being acquired by Dubai Ports World, a company controlled by the government of Dubai, and the Bush administration's sign-off on the deal has raised bipartisan concerns over the United Arab Emirates' links to terrorism. New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican, has said the United States should be worried that its ports might be controlled by "a company coming out of a country where al-Qaida has such a strong presence." New York Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton have raised similar concerns, and today Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he'll back emergency legislation to stop the deal if the Bush administration doesn't slow it down first.

"I'm not against foreign ownership," Frist said, "but my main concern is national security."

In a letter to the Treasury Department last week, seven members of Congress from both sides of the aisle listed some of the reasons for concern: Two of the 9/11 hijackers were UAE nationals; the FBI concluded that money for the 9/11 attacks was moved through the UAE banking system; the Treasury Department complained that the UAE was uncooperative in helping the United States track down Osama bin Laden's bank accounts; Dubai was one of only three nations to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan; and it has been named as a "key transfer point" for shipments of nuclear components by A.Q. Khan.

Bush seemed to suggest today that the concerns about UAE control of U.S. ports amounted to racism against Arabs. "This process has been extensively reviewed," he told reporters on Air Force One. "I really don't understand why it's OK for a British company to operate our ports but not a company from the Middle East [for which] our experts are convinced that port security is not an issue."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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