DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff

In the face of national outrage and sharp criticism from Republican and Democrat leaders, President Bush’s head of homeland security is defending the plan to turn over operations of six U.S. ports to an Arab company.

“We have a very disciplined process, it’s a classified process, for reviewing any acquisition by a foreign company of assets that we consider relevant to national security,” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

A merger deal approved by the federal government has the company currently running the ports, London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, getting acquired by the Emirati firm, Dubai Ports World. UAE has known ties to terrorists and 9-11 hijackers, raising concerns about security issues at the ports involved: New York, Baltimore, New Jersey, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

“We don’t take a risk. What we do is we require a very careful review – we have the FBI involved, we have the Department of Defense involved – of what the challenges are. We have, in fact, dealt with this port before because we deal with it overseas as part of our comprehensive global security network,” Chertoff said.

“We’ve built in, and we will build in safeguards to make sure that these kinds of things don’t happen. And, you know, this is part of the balancing of security, which is our paramount concern, with the need to still maintain a real robust global trading environment.”

On other weekend news programs, the plan came under heavy fire.

“It’s unbelievably tone deaf politically at this point in our history,” Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Most Americans are scratching their heads, wondering why this company from this region now.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to say she’ll back legislation preventing foreign companies from buying port facilities.

“I’m going to support legislation to say ‘No more, no way.’ We have to have American companies running our own ports. … Our infrastructure is at risk,” Boxer said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is already preparing legislation to preclude companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from running port operations in the U.S.

He says Chertoff’s comments indicate the Bush administration “just does not get it.”

“No matter what steps the administration claims it has secretly taken, it is an unacceptable risk to turn control of our ports over to a foreign government, particularly one with a troubling history,” Menendez said in a prepared statement. “We cannot depend on promises a foreign government has given the administration in secret to secure our ports.”

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