Kenneth R. Timmerman
March 2, 2006
The Bush administration played catch-up this week as it belatedly presented some of the facts behind its assessment that the Dubai Ports World takeover of six U.S. container terminals does not present a threat to U.S. national security.
It sent top officials to the airwaves and to Congress to explain exactly how security in American ports is handled – something the bright lights among our elected representatives should have known had they paid attention to the scores of hearings over the past four years where this has been discussed. Senator James Inhofe (R, Ok), joked at the attention now showered on the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, the obscure inter-agency group that approved the deal, known by its acronym, CFIUS (pronounced Sif-ee-us). “Up until a month ago, 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 Dubai Ports World that the first thing we all need to do is stand back and take a deep breath.
No, this deal is not going to allow bearded Islamist fanatics to swarm over our ports with AK-47s or to bring in a nuclear bomb. U.S. government agencies do and will continue to handle security checks of all port personnel. “We are not about to waver on something as fundamental as port security,” Chief Kevin McCabe, the top U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in charge of the Port of Newark told me. If DPW starts sending UAE or other Arab nationals into the United States to work in the ports, they will have to go through numerous security checks – just as any foreign nationals 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 their operator’s contract of container terminals to a Dubai-government owned company does not signify the end of national sovereignty as we think we know it. That ended a long time ago, whether we like it or not. And no again, Treasury Secretary John Snow, who worked for CSX Terminals – another port operator that was bought out last year by Dubai Ports World – is not pursuing a secret plan to sell our ports to Arab sheikhs. He was not part of the CFIUS deliberations and only learned of them belatedly, as did other cabinet secretaries. Nor is Neal Bush, the president’s brother, secretly running interference for the deal, despite the fact that he exercised monumental bad judgment (and that’s putting it politely) by accepting a speaking engagement at the grossly anti-Semitic Zayed Center in the United Arab Emirates.
Democrats who have raised such conspiracy theories – and much more - had no problem backing the Chinese communist takeover of the entire Port of Long Beach during the Clinton years. Nor did they object when another Chinese-government owned firm bought out Magnaquench in 1999, and so gained control of our entire national supply of rare earth materials, which are critical for manufacturing exotic defense technologies, as well as liquid-crystal displays and fiber optics cables .
At least 90 terminals at America’s largest ports are today operated by foreign companies, according to an excellent survey by the Washington Times that appeared on Feb. 22. The largest operators are China Ocean shipping Company, APM Terminals (Denmark), APL (Singapore), Hanjin Shipping (South Korea), and three Japanese companies, Kawasaki, Kisen, Kaisha Ltd, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and Ceres Terminals.We may not like this foreign ownership of our container terminals. Indeed, Kevin Kearns, whose U.S. Business and Industrial Council represents thousands of small and mid-sized U.S. businesses, believes Congress needs to walk back the foreign terminal agreements so we can “take back control of our ports.” USBIC has been arguing for years that we need real national security controls on the sale of U.S. businesses unless we want our entire industrial base to be “hollowed out.” Senator Jim Inhofe has sponsored legislation – S.1797 – that moves in this direction by extending the CFIUS review period and mandating greater transparency and Congressional oversight.
But the question of foreign ownership of container terminals is a long-term industrial base problem more than an immediate national security problem. The U.S. Coast Guard, in tandem with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the local ports authorities, handles security at U.S. ports. As one senior Department of Homeland Security official told me yesterday, “This deal presents no practical vulnerability. Why? I’ve got ships, and I’ve got guns. If I say that a terminal operator is not getting a cargo, he is not getting that cargo.”
His formula, while simple on the surface, expressed a complex reality that has been years in the making.
I spent three months last autumn touring U.S. ports and learning about port security for a cover story I was writing for Newsmax magazine. When I began my investigation, I believed as do many Americans today that we were at grave risk of terrorists bringing a nuclear weapon into a container port.
As I interviewed the men and women who are handling our goal-line defense, I learned the extraordinary efforts undertaken over the past four years by the Bush administration to push our borders outwards, so that security checks are done thousands of miles away from our shores.
This part of the Dubai Ports World debacle is a good news story that the White House and the rest of the administration has done a terrible job telling to the American people. Are we 100% secure in our ports today? Of course not. 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 defending against it. All infrastructure in the United States is potentially vulnerable to terrorist attack. But instead of looking at vulnerabilities alone, Bonner believes we need to look at the threat. “Our goal has been to prevent our enemy from getting terrorists or terrorist-weapons into the United States,” he said. “If you do that, you won’t have any attacks.”
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has testified that his department has spent $10 billion since 2004 on port security. That figure includes installation of Radiation Portal Monitors to screen containers entering and leaving U.S. ports, overseas deployments of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, the modernization of the U.S. Coast Guard, and much more. By the end of this fiscal year, DHS expects that 65 percent of containers will be screened for radioactive or radiological materials at our seaports, while 80 percent will be screened at our land border points of entry. These are facts that rarely get mentioned in this debate.
Bonner spent four years implementing practical measures that have transformed the way port security is handled in the United States. “I am sick and tired of hearing that nothing has been done to improve cargo security since 9/11,” he said.
Like Mark Twain’s famous quip concerning reports of his own death, Bonner said the security concerns over Dubai Ports World “are greatly exaggerated.”
Critics complain that U.S. Customs and Border Protection physically inspect just 2 percent of containers. The actual percentage of containers actually unpacked in the United States is slightly higher, but it is simply irrelevant.
In fact, as Chief McCabe told me, “100 percent of containers coming into the United States from overseas go through our screening process. It begins 24 hours before they are ever loaded at a foreign port.”
Customs has built up an extensive data base of shipping companies, shippers, freight forwarders, importers, container terminal operators, and other actors involved in the movement of goods, as well as other criteria, that allow them to make a preliminary assessment of the potential terrorist risk from any given container. Every single container is run through this Automated Tracking System. At risk containers are then singled out for further passive or intrusive inspections.
Thanks to the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which Robert Bonner helped bring to life, forty-two ports around the world that account for 80 percent of the cargo coming into the United States now allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to inspect cargo before it ever leaves for the United States. Bonner signed a CSI agreement with Dubai in December 2004, making it the only port in the Middle East to allow such intrusive U.S. inspections.
All containers – no exceptions – that are identified as a potential security threat are inspected, most of them before they ever reach the United States. Customs and Border Protection uses radiation detectors, gamma ray inspection equipment, and X-ray systems to identify suspicious cargo without opening the containers and immobilizing global trade. Container terminals “are the end of the line,” Bonner says. “We’ve pushed our borders outwards. If they get a weapon into one of our terminals, it’s all over.”
So in one sense, who owns a container terminal operating contract makes little difference to the security of our ports. The same longshoremen will be loading and unloading the ships, and the same security procedures will be in place that exist today.
But there are real concerns with the Dubai Ports deal that cannot be brushed away – and they do not stem from “Islamophobia,” the disease some have alleged has infected the deal’s critics. A U.S. Coast Guard analysis, released in part by Senator Susan Collins on Monday, raises three areas where the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center has assessed that “intelligence gaps” in our knowledge of Dubai Ports World are so serious that they “preclude an overall threat assessment” of the container terminal contract takeover.
“The breadth of the intelligence gaps also infer potential unknown threats against a large number of potential vulnerabilities,” an unclassified portion of the classified assessment 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 Intelligence analysis that was performed early on as part of the due diligence process,” and “do not reflect the full, classified analysis performed by the Guard. That analysis concludes ‘that DP world’s acquisition of P&O, in and of itself [emphasis mine], does not pose a significant threat to U.S. assets in [continental United States] ports.’”
Chief Kevin McCabe and senior DHS officials dismissed concerns over who will load and unload containers. They also dismissed fears that DP World officials will learn anything about port security procedures. “I can’t think of anything we’ve ever given the terminal operators that would give them a tip-off as to our security procedures,” McCabe said. “We tell them what containers we want to see, and we get them. They have nothing to do with what containers we screen or inspect.”
But the italicized weasel words in the Coast Guard analysis are not reassuring. Nor was the testimony on Tuesday by National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.“On the basis of our inquiry we assess that the threat to U.S. national security posed by DP World to be low,” he told the Senate Armed Services committee. “We didn’t see any red flags come up during the course of our inquiry.”
Negroponte’s office wouldn’t comment on what might constitute a “red flag,” nor on the specific assurances DP World has given 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 is the government of Dubai, Chertoff and other U.S. officials say. But DP World is said to have raised most of the $6.8 billion it needed for the buyout on international capital markets, and has not publicly disclosed which investors bought into the deal.
How would the administration respond should it turn out, say, that the son of a senior Iranian government official was a significant investor in Dubai Ports World? Would that raise a “red flag?”
And then there’s the whole issue of the Arab League boycott on doing business in Israel, which the Dubai Ports Authority, part of the holding company that owns DP world, openly told Jerusalem Post reporter Michael Freund it was enforcing. U.S. companies that comply with the Arab League boycott are subject to stiff penalties under U.S. law.
Clearly, more transparency is required here if the administration holds out any hope of convincing Congress – let alone a jittery public – that this deal should stand.
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Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum, New York), and Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.