The Bush administration played catch-up this weekas it belatedly presented some of the facts behind its assessmentthat the Dubai Ports World takeover of six U.S. container terminalsdoes not present a threat to U.S. national security.
It sent top officials to the airwaves and toCongress to explain exactly how security in American ports is handled&endash; something the bright lights among our electedrepresentatives should have known had they paid attention to thescores of hearings over the past four years where this has beendiscussed.
Senator James Inhofe (R, Ok), joked at theattention now showered on the Committee for Foreign Investment in theUnited States, the obscure inter-agency group that approved the deal,known by its acronym, CFIUS (pronounced Sif-ee-us). "Up until a monthago, if you'd mentioned CFIUS to any member of the U.S. Senate,they'd have thought you were talking about a communicable disease,"he told me.
There has been so much hyperventilation over DubaiPorts World that the first thing we all need to do is stand back andtake a deep breath.
No, this deal is not going to allow beardedIslamist fanatics to swarm over our ports with AK-47s or to bring ina nuclear bomb. U.S. government agencies do and will continue tohandle security checks of all port personnel. "We are not about towaver on something as fundamental as port security," Chief KevinMcCabe, the top U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in chargeof the Port of Newark told me.
If DPW starts sending UAE or other Arab nationalsinto the United States to work in the ports, they will have to gothrough numerous security checks &endash; just as any foreignnationals coming to the United States to work in a port would incur."Just because you're an Arab, doesn't mean you're a terrorist,"McCabe said.
And no, allowing a British company to sell theiroperator's contract of container terminals to a Dubai-governmentowned company does not signify the end of national sovereignty as wethink we know it. That ended a long time ago, whether we like it ornot.
And no again, Treasury Secretary John Snow, whoworked for CSX Terminals &endash; another port operator that wasbought out last year by Dubai Ports World &endash; is not pursuing asecret plan to sell our ports to Arab sheikhs. He was not part of theCFIUS deliberations and only learned of them belatedly, as did othercabinet secretaries.
Nor is Neal Bush, the president's brother,secretly running interference for the deal, despite the fact that heexercised monumental bad judgment (and that's putting it politely) byaccepting a speaking engagement at the grossly anti-Semitic ZayedCenter in the United Arab Emirates.
Democrats who have raised such conspiracy theories&endash; and much more - had no problem backing the Chinese communisttakeover of the entire Port of Long Beach during the Clinton years.Nor did they object when another Chinese-government owned firm boughtout Magnaquench in 1999, and so gained control of our entire nationalsupply of rare earth materials, which are critical for manufacturingexotic defense technologies, as well as liquid-crystal displays andfiber optics cables .
At least 90 terminals at America's largest portsare today operated by foreign companies, according to an excellentsurvey by the Washington Times that appeared on Feb. 22. The largestoperators are China Ocean shipping Company, APM Terminals (Denmark),APL (Singapore), Hanjin Shipping (South Korea), and three Japanesecompanies, Kawasaki, Kisen, Kaisha Ltd, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, andCeres Terminals.
We may not like this foreign ownership of ourcontainer terminals. Indeed, Kevin Kearns, whose U.S. Business andIndustrial Council represents thousands of small and mid-sized U.S.businesses, believes Congress needs to walk back the foreign terminalagreements so we can "take back control of our ports." USBIC has beenarguing for years that we need real national security controls on thesale of U.S. businesses unless we want our entire industrial base tobe "hollowed out."
Senator Jim Inhofe has sponsored legislation&endash; S.1797 &endash; that moves in this direction by extendingthe CFIUS review period and mandating greater transparency andCongressional oversight.
But the question of foreign ownership of containerterminals is a long-term industrial base problem more than animmediate national security problem.
The U.S. Coast Guard, in tandem with U.S. Customsand Border Protection and the local ports authorities, handlessecurity at U.S. ports. As one senior Department of Homeland Securityofficial told me yesterday, "This deal presents no practicalvulnerability. Why? I've got ships, and I've got guns. If I say thata terminal operator is not getting a cargo, he is not getting thatcargo."
His formula, while simple on the surface,expressed a complex reality that has been years in themaking.
I spent three months last autumn touring U.S.ports and learning about port security for a cover story I waswriting for Newsmax magazine. When I began my investigation, Ibelieved as do many Americans today that we were at grave risk ofterrorists bringing a nuclear weapon into a containerport.
As I interviewed the men and women who arehandling our goal-line defense, I learned the extraordinary effortsundertaken over the past four years by the Bush administration topush our borders outwards, so that security checks are done thousandsof miles away from our shores.
This part of the Dubai Ports World debacle is agood news story that the White House and the rest of theadministration has done a terrible job telling to the Americanpeople.
Are we 100% secure in our ports today? Of coursenot. But as former Customs commissioner Robert Bonner told me,Washington tends to specialize in the "anything is possible"scenario, and then dreams up new and more expensive ways of defendingagainst it.
All infrastructure in the United States ispotentially vulnerable to terrorist attack. But instead of looking atvulnerabilities alone, Bonner believes we need to look at the threat."Our goal has been to prevent our enemy from getting terrorists orterrorist-weapons into the United States," he said. "If you do that,you won't have any attacks."
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has testified thathis department has spent $10 billion since 2004 on port security.That figure includes installation of Radiation Portal Monitors toscreen containers entering and leaving U.S. ports, overseasdeployments of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, themodernization of the U.S. Coast Guard, and much more.
By the end of this fiscal year, DHS expects that65 percent of containers will be screened for radioactive orradiological materials at our seaports, while 80 percent will bescreened at our land border points of entry. These are facts thatrarely get mentioned in this debate.
Bonner spent four years implementing practicalmeasures that have transformed the way port security is handled inthe United States. "I am sick and tired of hearing that nothing hasbeen done to improve cargo security since 9/11," he said.
Like Mark Twain's famous quip concerning reportsof his own death, Bonner said the security concerns over Dubai PortsWorld "are greatly exaggerated."
Critics complain that U.S. Customs and BorderProtection physically inspect just 2 percent of containers. Theactual percentage of containers actually unpacked in the UnitedStates is slightly higher, but it is simply irrelevant.
In fact, as Chief McCabe told me, "100 percent ofcontainers coming into the United States from overseas go through ourscreening process. It begins 24 hours before they are ever loaded ata foreign port."
Customs has built up an extensive data base ofshipping companies, shippers, freight forwarders, importers,container terminal operators, and other actors involved in themovement of goods, as well as other criteria, that allow them to makea preliminary assessment of the potential terrorist risk from anygiven container. Every single container is run through this AutomatedTracking System. At risk containers are then singled out for furtherpassive or intrusive inspections.
Thanks to the Container Security Initiative (CSI),which Robert Bonner helped bring to life, forty-two ports around theworld that account for 80 percent of the cargo coming into the UnitedStates now allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers toinspect cargo before it ever leaves for the United States.
Bonner signed a CSI agreement with Dubai inDecember 2004, making it the only port in the Middle East to allowsuch intrusive U.S. inspections.
All containers &endash; no exceptions &endash;that are identified as a potential security threat are inspected,most of them before they ever reach the United States. Customs andBorder Protection uses radiation detectors, gamma ray inspectionequipment, and X-ray systems to identify suspicious cargo withoutopening the containers and immobilizing global trade.
Container terminals "are the end of theline," Bonner says. "We've pushed our borders outwards. If they get aweapon into one of our terminals, it's all over."
So in one sense, who owns a container terminaloperating contract makes little difference to the security of ourports. The same longshoremen will be loading and unloading the ships,and the same security procedures will be in place that existtoday.
But there are real concerns with the Dubai Portsdeal that cannot be brushed away &endash; and they do not stem from"Islamophobia," the disease some have alleged has infected the deal'scritics.
A U.S. Coast Guard analysis, released in part bySenator Susan Collins on Monday, raises three areas where the CoastGuard Intelligence Coordination Center has assessed that"intelligence gaps" in our knowledge of Dubai Ports World are soserious that they "preclude an overall threat assessment" of thecontainer terminal contract takeover.
"The breadth of the intelligence gaps also inferpotential unknown threats against a large number of potentialvulnerabilities," an unclassified portion of the classifiedassessment reads. It identifies three major areas of concern:
"Operations: What is the security environment at all the DPW and P&O port or terminal operations; to include the methods of conveyance and the personnel management of related ports and terminal operations?
"Personnel: What are the backgrounds of all associated personnel working for or associated with DPW and P&O?
"Foreign Influence: Is there foreign influence on DPW or P&O operations that affect security and other major decisions? If so, what countries and to what degree?"
The Coast Guard contends that these passages were"taken out of context" from "a broader Coast Guard Intelligenceanalysis that was performed early on as part of the due diligenceprocess," and "do not reflect the full, classified analysis performedby the Guard. That analysis concludes 'that DP world's acquisition ofP&O, in and of itself [emphasis mine], does not pose asignificant threat to U.S. assets in [continental UnitedStates] ports.'"
Chief Kevin McCabe and senior DHS officialsdismissed concerns over who will load and unload containers. Theyalso dismissed fears that DP World officials will learn anythingabout port security procedures. "I can't think of anything we've evergiven the terminal operators that would give them a tip-off as to oursecurity procedures," McCabe said. "We tell them what containers wewant to see, and we get them. They have nothing to do with whatcontainers we screen or inspect."
But the italicized weasel words in the Coast Guardanalysis are not reassuring. Nor was the testimony on Tuesday byNational Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
"On the basis of our inquiry we assess that thethreat to U.S. national security posed by DP World to be low," hetold the Senate Armed Services committee. "We didn't see any redflags come up during the course of our inquiry."
Negroponte's office wouldn't comment on what mightconstitute a "red flag," nor on the specific assurances DP World hasgiven the U.S. government to mitigate the concerns raised by the U.S.Coast Guard.
Just who owns Dubai Ports World? We are told it isthe government of Dubai, Chertoff and other U.S. officials say. ButDP World is said to have raised most of the $6.8 billion it neededfor the buyout on international capital markets, and has not publiclydisclosed which investors bought into the deal.
How would the administration respond should itturn out, say, that the son of a senior Iranian government officialwas a significant investor in Dubai Ports World? Would that raise a"red flag?"
And then there's the whole issue of the ArabLeague boycott on doing business in Israel, which the Dubai PortsAuthority, part of the holding company that owns DP world, openlytold Jerusalem Post reporter Michael Freund it was enforcing. U.S.companies that comply with the Arab League boycott are subject tostiff penalties under U.S. law.
Clearly, more transparency is required here if theadministration holds out any hope of convincing Congress &endash; letalone a jittery public &endash; that this deal shouldstand.
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Kenneth R. Timmerman
President, Middle East Data Project, Inc.
Author: Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown withIran
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Copyright©2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman