(CNSNews.com) - At worst, it's a security threat; at best, it's a public relations nightmare.
Bush administration officials plan to brief the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday on a deal that would give a company owned by the United Arab Emirates operational control of terminals at six major U.S. ports.
"So many people are making public statements, and they just don't have the full set of facts," Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said on Tuesday, when he announced the briefing.
The Dubai-based company is taking over a British company that currently operates ports in New York City, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Miami, and New Orleans.
USA Today reported that the company, Dubai Ports World, bought the rights to operate up to 30 percent of the terminals at each of the six ports. The Bush administration, calling the U.A.E. an ally in the war on terror, has emphasized that security control will remain with the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol.
President Bush on Tuesday called it a "legitimate deal that will not jeopardize the security of the country."
The deal was approved by a federal panel led by Treasury Secretary John Snow; the panel included representatives from a number of government agencies, none of whom would do anything to undermine national security, former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said on Tuesday.
But many Republicans, Democrats, pundits and ordinary Americans are strongly opposed to the idea of letting an Arab nation operate terminals at ports where security concerns remain very high.
On Tuesday, President Bush announced that his decision is final - he will veto any legislation intended to scuttle the U.A.E. ports deal.
Former CIA operative Wayne Simmons, a defender of the Bush administration, told Fox & Friends Wednesday morning that the nationality of the firm managing port terminals doesn't matter as much as U.S. security measures do.
"It's not that we check 100 percent of the containers - it's that we use a constellation of efforts worldwide to understand what's being brought in - and try to use those together to prevent terrorist activities," Simmons said.
"Our longshoremen control the docks - that's it," he said.
From truckers in New Jersey to Times Square travelers in Manhattan and politicians along the I-95 corridor, outrage erupted on Tuesday.
"Nobody can understand it. No Democrat can understand it. No Republican can understand it. How can we turn over one of the most vital areas in our nation to a country with a significant nexus of involvement with terrorists?" asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Angering many is the fact Dubai World Ports is based in the United Arab Emirates, a country that recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government; was home to two of the 9/11 hijackers; and whose banks were used to funnel money to the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.
If the deal goes through as scheduled in early March, the Dubai firm would be responsible for the passenger cruise ship terminals on Manhattan's West Side, where luxury liners, including the Queen Elizabeth II, dock.
It also would manage operations at terminals in Newark, one of the busiest ports in the nation, which is adjacent to Newark Liberty International Airport.
The question of security has become a pressing issue since the 9/11 terror attacks. According to press reports, only five percent of all containers that come into the New York and New Jersey ports receive a full inspection.
Despite being hospitalized with complications from recent surgery, New York's Republican Governor George Pataki is a leading opponent of the Bush administration's plan to let Dubai Ports World operate U.S. port terminals. Both Pataki and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich have said they are considering the legal options available to them to thwart the deal.
Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) believes the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey should break its lease in Newark if the ports deal goes through. "We cannot cede control of strategic assets to foreign nations with spotty records on terrorism," said Fossella.
Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert have expressed opposition to the deal.
Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said they will introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of U.S. ports to foreign governments.
King told reporters on Tuesday that his office has received more calls regarding the port issue than on any issue in his 14 years in Congress. "What we learned after 9/11 is that we cannot be too careful," said King.
On Sunday, relatives of 9/11 victims held a news conference to denounce the Dubai ports deal.
"I'm a lifelong Republican. I think the president has gone insane," said Peter Gaidel, the head of a group called the 9/11 Families for a Secure America. Gaidel's son died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Concerns over foreign nations owning or operating vital U.S. interests are not new. Last summer, when a Chinese oil company tried to purchase oil and energy company Unocal, many lawmakers expressed concern about the implications for national security.
On Tuesday, the topic of the port sale dominated radio news and talk stations across the nation. One New Jersey radio station said it was deluged with calls on Monday, demanding action against the port deal.
"We received more than a dozen calls in less than an hour, every one questioning how the government could allow this and demanding every Jersey politician put a stop to this. Not one caller was in favor of this, and many callers wanted to know how to call the White House directly to voice their outrage," said Charod Williams, producer of the Carton & Rossi "Jersey Guys" Show on WKXW-FM, New Jersey's top-rated afternoon radio program.
New Jersey's politicians were listening.
"The security of America is not for sale, and I hope that President Bush will correct this mistake by suspending this deal and investigating the reasoning behind this misguided decision," stated Rep. Christopher Smith, the leading conservative in New Jersey's Republican congressional delegation.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, who was criticized for remaining silent on the issue, hastily called a news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce he would have New Jersey file lawsuits on Wednesday in both state and federal court to block the port takeover.
Miami's mayor also has filed suit against the letting the Dubai company manage the Port of Miami
New Yorkers in Times Square seemed united against both the Bush administration and the port takeover plan.
"I don't understand it at all, but anything that Bush supports can't be good," said Marysol Mendez of the Bronx.
"I support the war. I support our troops. However, I don't believe at all that having a Middle East nation that has supported terrorism in charge of our ports is the right idea. It's an invitation for disaster," said Robert Shapiro, a resident of Long Island.
Truckers who travel the I-95 corridor also expressed concerns. "This makes no sense to me. Anything can be in those containers. Half the time I don't even know what I'm hauling out of (the Port of) Newark," said a container truck driver who identified himself only as "Charlie."
"These lunatics in Washington, don't they even remember who bombed us four years ago?
(Senior Editor Susan Jones contributed to this report.)
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