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On Port Security: Slower, Please

By Steve Schippert | February 23, 2006

After several days of battling both for and against the prospect of Dubai Ports World acquiring P&O Steam Navigation and, thus, operation of several of our largest maritime ports, I have consistently come to one daily conclusion: Breathe.

That suggestion, by the way, is not directed solely at the many in such spirited opposition to the deal, but also at the Bush Administration and the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS). There is absolutely no need to rush this through, especially when there is quite obviously a great deal of concern among the American public. Neither the ports nor P&O Steam Navigation nor their buyers, Dubai Ports World, are going to vaporize within a 30-day or 45-day window for review. Our nation’s security (and our public’s peace of mind) deserve this consideration.

There are many aspects that warrant a closer look, including the true nature of the UAE’s support in the War on Terror, the current state of their banking system - long used throughout the region for nefarious causes, the fact that it will be a government-owned company servicing our ports and not a private entity, and how they intend to staff the various ports’ management. The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States may very well have vetted this to their own satisfaction in their customary secrecy. But, in this case, such secrecy will not be deemed acceptable. There are means of publicly vetting these important issues without compromising sensitive information. Perhaps not perfectly, but for a matter of such great public concern, complete secrecy is counterproductive regardless of the ultimate result of any hearings and public review. In this instance, the risk of secrecy appears far greater than the risk of sensitive exposure.

With that being said, the ownership of the US port operations by a UAE government-owned firm is not the security concern that the degree of current hyperventilating seems to insist in much of the political and media spheres (both old and new).

Let’s take a logical look at a few of the issues of concern.

  • The UAE is not buying US ports.

There still seems to be a fair number who characterize the issue as the United Arab Emirates ‘buying’ ports. They are not. Their DP World is buying a company who happens to have rights to the leases to operate the various ports. DP World will own nothing but rights (important rights, to be sure) and heavy equipment. Those rights also expire with the leases offered by the states that own the various ports.

  • The US Coast Guard and US Customs, now under DHS command, is in charge of inbound maritime port security, not the port operator.

It is not the function of port operators to inspect cargo or enact the type of security measures that many seem to assume. The security checks in question are addressed before the port operator has ‘custody’ of the ship for unloading operations. Inbound cargo vessels are stopped and inspected by the US Coast Guard at a safe distance. One can argue that they do not inspect all/enough cargo containers, but that does not fall under the auspices, control or even influence of the port operators. If one desires more inspections, then the proper channel is through elected officials and the Department of Homeland Security, but not Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation today or, potentially, the UAE-owned Dubai Ports World at a future date. Screening simply does not fall to them.

  • The concern over potentially dubious UAE hiring practices is largely a non sequitur.

Why? Because the hiring of the hands-on crews that operate the equipment to dock, unload and load the commercial transport vessels is determined by the American unions who man the yards. Anyone who has ever attempted to become a longshoreman has had to either go through the International Longshoreman’s Association on the East Coast or the International Longshoremen & Warehousers’ Union on the West Coast, and getting into the union is no easy task. Is an American Union going to tolerate quietly any attempt by the UAE (or US Federal Government, for that matter) to employ a non-union member on the docks or an attempt to squeeze a foreign citizen onto their payrolls?

Let’s also consider that these longshoremen are by and large a secondary line of defense who are not tasked with inspection. Their job is to ‘yank and crank’, to unload and load cargo as quickly as is safely possible.

If one still has concerns, right after a major shift change, stroll down to the local watering hole near Port Long Beach or outside New Jersey’s Port Elizabeth servicing New York City. When you get inside, amidst the lifted beers and tall tales of high school football glory days, shout out loud, “You people cannot be trusted with this port any longer!” Be sure to observe the response with alertness and quick feet. They take great pride in what they do, and to suggest that they would allow anything untoward to happen to their own dock or their own country is an exercise in folly. These are the men who ran the docks before the March 2 purchase of P&O by the UAE’s DP World, and they will be the same ones manning the docks afterwards.

If DP World (or P&O, for that matter) decided who loaded & unloaded the ships, operated the cranes and moved the cargo, this would be a potential concern. But, they do not, did not and will not.

If DP World were to even actually have in its employ at a port a questionable character in a management position with ill intent, he would have no more effect on an inbound shipment’s ability to thwart US Customs and Coast Guard security checks than he would from the sending end. The idea that a port operator would somehow be more able to sneak a deadly container into a port is an idea founded without understanding the disconnect between the port operator and the inbound inspections system employed by the USCG and Customs before entering the port.

  • With few allies in the region, what does it say to those we do have if we reject the UAE and DP World for essentially ‘Operating While Arab’?

Consider the inexplicable context provided by our own former vice president, Al Gore, who charged just days ago in a paid speech at a Saudi Arabian-hosted Middle Eastern economic summit that America has and is mistreating Arabs worldwide. He said that Arabs are "indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable. Unfortunately there have been terrible abuses and it's wrong. I do want you to know that it does not represent the desires or wishes or feelings of the majority of the citizens of my country."

Ironically, it should not go without notice that many of the American politicians now loudly opposed to this deal are doing so in generalities and pouncing upon the Arab aspect largely for public consumption, playing to the wave of initial reaction. Yet, these politicians who opposed racial profiling of young Arab males for particular attention in our airports after the attacks of September 11, 2001, are now engaged in openly racially profiling and entire nation. This incongruous stance should disqualify them from the ranks of those who should be taken seriously. With little doubt and much irony, they are 'playing on our fears'.

If we simply reject the UAE-owned DP World bid with this tone amid the backdrop mindlessly and erroneously laid by our own former vice president, it will carry loud and lasting reverberations throughout the Middle East, a region whose slow self-transformation we rely upon heavily for the future safety and security of our own children.

This is a long war with few clear victories. Are we prepared to now cede one of the few allies we have in the region and accept the long-term consequences without taking a longer, closer look?

For these key reasons, while it is important to take our time and be certain and look for other potential risks, the key fears cited are not necessarily based on a solid understanding of the security impact of a port operator. With a longer and more detailed public look at both the role of a port operator and the UAE’s DP World, it will likely become clear that this is not at all the security risk that it first seemed to be. But, to assume otherwise or even to arrive at that judgment without such further review is wholly irresponsible.

To be sure, there are many aspects that warrant a more patient and more public inspection. So, let’s take our time and have a closer look and have it very publicly for our own peace of mind, one way or the other.

But be forewarned on potential Congressional review: So long as there are cameras in the chambers, we will be more likely to see many politicians seeking to bend testimony around their already-stated public positions rather than seeking a true understanding, regardless of their perceptions. Most will, typically, exit any such procedure with the same view they entered into it with. For this reason, the public must not let this rest on The Hill. The American public must remain engaged.

We, the people, need to review and work to understand the facts and implications.

The items listed above are not offered as justification for waving the DP World deal through. Not at all. Their purpose here is to simply serve as a brown paper bag for the hyperventilating to breathe into. We need to make an important security decision with long term implications. We cannot possibly make a sound judgment with a rubber stamp in one hand while hyperventilating into the other.


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