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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Seven Questions: Port Security

The sale of operations at six U.S. ports to a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, tells FP that the passionate criticism of the deal misses the mark.

Foreign Policy: What is the significance of the port deal?

James Jay Carafano: For the actual operation of the port, very little will change. Dubai World Ports is just a holding company. None of the personnel or access to security related information will change in terms of the operation of the port.

FP: Who manages security at these ports? Will security be affected by the sale?

JJC: Security of the port is governed by the International Shipping and Port Security Code, which was written after September 11, 2001 and modeled on U.S. maritime security law. It’s a standard that holds regardless of nationality or ownership. Any company that operates in the United States has to comply with that standard, and compliance is overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard. The security at every port is coordinated by the captain of the port, who by law is a U.S. Coast Guard officer. All screening of containers at the port is done by the Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Protection agency, not a private company. In the day to day operations of the port, it makes no difference who owns the holding company.

FP: Critics of the sale have cited the fact that two of the September 11 hijackers were UAE citizens and that much of the financing for the 9/11 attacks went through Dubai banks. Should this be a concern?

JJC: The UAE is the financial and transportation hub of the Middle East. Everything goes through Dubai. The UAE government is not a state sponsor of terrorism. In fact, it has been a staunch ally of the United States in fighting transnational terrorist networks, including capturing and turning over high-ranking al Qaeda operatives. One of the hubs of a September 11 cell was Germany. Are we going to prevent Mercedes Benz from operating in the United States?

As far as terrorist infiltration is concerned, buying a $7 billion company doesn’t match with terrorist tradecraft in any way. Everyone at ports knows everyone else, especially at the management level. Do you think hiring an Arab terrorist with no maritime experience to work at a port in New Jersey wouldn’t go noticed? The terrorists didn’t carry out the September 11 attacks by buying U.S. Airways. They did very mundane things to penetrate at a very mundane level. That’s how criminals operate at ports as well. If someone buys a $7 billion dollar company, odds are they are interested in protecting that investment, not exploiting it for terrorist activities.

FP: Aren’t only about 4 or 5 percent of containers screened at U.S. ports?

JJC: That’s a misleading statistic. All containers are screened, but those determined to be suspicious—about 6 percent—are inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. If we inspected all the containers coming into the United States, trade would ground to a halt. U.S. seaborne trade is one third of gross domestic product (GDP), and it is vital to keep that moving.

FP: Is this a fairly routine sale? Has it been vetted thoroughly enough?

JJC: In my experience, this is a fairly routine deal. Ownership moves around a good deal. It is important to remember that the shipping business is a transnational business by nature. Many of the operations of U.S. ports are run by foreign and transnational companies, which also own many of the ships and containers coming into U.S. ports.

The Committee on Foreign Direct Investment in the United States which approved the sale conducts a closed review process, as you would expect, so I can’t comment on how thorough it has been. But Dubai World Ports has actually been more open and willing to allow the release of information than many others.

FP: How good is the security at U.S. ports now?

JJC: There are two basic systems. There is the Container Security Initiative, where we ask countries to pre-screen containers before they are shipped to the United States if we suspect there is something fishy about them. And then there is the Consumer Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, where companies voluntarily agree to comply with certain security standards. Both those programs could be strengthened and enhanced. But they are not designed to be silver bullets. We don’t ask the private sector to stop terrorists. It is the government’s job to find the terrorists and stop them.

The concern about maritime security is certainly valid. We should absolutely be concerned about our ports. But the security standards won’t change because of this deal.

FP: Should the congressional review go forward?

JJC: I think it is appropriate. The legislation that created the Committee on Foreign Direct Investment hasn’t been reviewed in the post-September 11 world. Congress should absolutely be allowed to review the requirements it originally put down.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation



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