Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary, said on Sunday that the Bush administration had approved the sale of the British firm P&O, which manages six US ports including New York, to Dubai Ports World after a classified review.

"You can be assured that before a deal is approved we put safeguards in place, assurances in place, that make everybody comfortable that we are where we need to be from a national security viewpoint," Chertoff said on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

But Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican senate member, said it was a mistake for the administration to approve the sale and called on Congress to investigate it.

"It's unbelievably tone deaf politically at this point in our history, four years after 9/11, to entertain the idea of turning port security over to a company based in the UAE who avows to destroy Israel," Graham said on Fox News Sunday.

"I don't think now is the time to outsource major port security to a foreign-based company," he said.

Legislation mooted

Barbara Boxer, a Democratic senator from California, criticised the secrecy of the Bush administration's review and said she would support legislation to block 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," she said on CBS' Face the
Nation.

The US describes the UAE as a
vital partner in the war on terror

Last week, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Hillary Clinton of New York, both Democratic senators, said they would offer legislation to ban companies owned or controlled by foreign governments from acquiring US port operations.

"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," Menendez said in a statement.

Some in Congress have expressed fears that the UAE was used as a conduit for parts used for nuclear proliferation and that the local banking system had been abused by financiers with links to terrorist organisations.

The Bush administration, however, considers Dubai and the UAE a solid ally in its campaign against terrorism.

Major ports

The UAE company would control management of major ports in New York and New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a US inter-agency panel that reviews security implications of foreign takeovers of strategic assets, reviewed the transaction and did not object.

US seaports handle two billion tonnes of freight each year. Only about 5% of containers are examined on arrival.

The Senate Banking Committee plans to hold a hearing next week to examine concerns about the P&O sale and the US government review process, a panel spokesman said.