WASHINGTON – Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the deal to let a firm owned by the United Arab Emirates run commercial operations of six U.S. ports went through a rigorous security vetting before its approval.
"Experts were asked, and there was agreement that this was a sale that could go forward with security for the United States unimpaired," she said.
"We have to maintain a principle that it doesn't matter where in the world one of these purchases is coming from. If it meets the standard of meeting the security standard that we need to meet, then it ought to go through," Rice said.
She added that the UAE has been a "stalwart partner" in the War on Terror.
"We believe that this is a deal, a port deal, that serves the interests of the United States, serves our security interests and serves the commercial interest as well," she said.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., U.S. Trade Representatives told reporters that the ports deal will help with the United States focus on economic development in U.S. and Mideast relations, relations that should be encouraged and emphasized.
Nonetheless, the Bush administration continues to get pounded for its decision to approve the purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. by the UAE-owned Dubai Ports World. The purchase would allow DP World to owning the contract for port operations in New York, New Jersey, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Miami.
"The wisdom of the American people should be taken into account here. ... It is not as I have seen reported in some corners some form of Islamophobia. That entire description would indicate some sort of irrational fear," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., who noted that the UAE was the birthplace of two Sept. 11 hijackers and was used as an operational and financial base for some of the hijackers.
Critics also argue the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.
"The bottom line is this: When in doubt, cut it out," Hayworth said.
"There is a big difference between a foreign company and a foreign government controlling operations at our ports, and the administration should be straight with the American people about that difference," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is introducing emergency legislation to prevent foreign governments from owning port operations in the United States.
The 12-member U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States approved the sale last Monday, and President Bush has until March 2 to decide whether to reject it. Without action, the deal will go into effect automatically. Lawmakers have asked him to delay approval until the multi-agency task force can take a closer look at the sale.
CFIUS is headed by Treasury Secretary John Snow and comprised of members of the departments of State, Justice, Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security, who reviewed the transaction and said it posed no national security threat.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Snow said failing to let the transaction go through would send a terrible message overseas.
"The implications of failing to approve this would be to tell the world that investments in the United States from certain parts of the world aren't welcome," Snow said following a speech in Connecticut to a fuel cell manufacturer.
On Wednesday, the White House admitted that Bush was unaware of the deal until it was approved by his administration.
"There was no objection raised by any of the departments during the review process or any concerns expressed about potential national security threats, and that's why it didn't rise to the presidential level," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But with the controversy raging over the pending management takeover, McClellan said the administration should have informed Congress earlier about the transaction.
"In hindsight, when you look at this and the coverage it received and the false impression it has left with some, we probably should have briefed members of Congress sooner," he said.
To assuage concerns, the administration has disclosed some assurances it negotiated with Dubai Ports. It required mandatory participation in U.S. security programs to stop smuggling and detect illegal shipments of nuclear materials; roughly 33 other port companies participate in these voluntarily. The Coast Guard also said it was nearly finished inspecting Dubai Ports' facilities in the United States.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will get a briefing from Defense Department officials on Thursday afternoon. Some of the calmer voices in Congress say they are willing to wait for hearings before judging the merits of the sale.
"This company is not in charge of security. They would be in charge of port operations. The security will continue to be handled by the Coat Guard and other federal agencies, but let's have hearings and see what happens," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Bush has said that he would veto any legislation that jeopardizes the $6.8 billion deal, but opponents of the sale on Capitol Hill say they can count enough votes in Congress to override a veto.
"This deal doesn't pass the national security test," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., chairman of the House Armed Services Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. "I think it's a mistake. If necessary, Congress should act independently of the president. Frankly, I think we can override a veto. We have more than enough votes to do it."
"I believe that this decision is going to be overturned and quickly," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-Ore.
Hayworth and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., vice chairwoman of the House Intelligence Committee, said they too would vote to override the president.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said DP World actually services U.S. warships abroad. One official at the White House said if DP World's operations are good enough for Pace, they ought to be good enough for Congress. But Bush aides admit that they are frustrated that during the approval process noone recognized or thought to warn the White House that the deal might be controversial.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist responded that the administration's say-so is not enough. Lawmakers need to see for themselves that security will be maintained
"We need to be convinced of that -- we need to be brought up to that same comfort level that clearly the administration does have today, and I think once that's done, a final decision can be made," said Frist, R-Tenn.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., told FOX News on Wednesday that whatever the outcome, he hopes national security will not turn into a partisan football in November.
"It is my hope that the forthcoming elections will treat the issue of national security with a high degree of interest on both sides," he said, adding that in the end, voters will realize that "Republicans indeed more earnestly have dedicated their efforts toward strengthening" America.
FOX News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.