February 24, 2006,
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, styles himself an independent voice unafraid to speak truth to power. Judging by his performance in the controversy over a company that is owned by the United Arab Emirates potentially managing terminals at six U.S. ports, Graham is also unafraid to speak falsehood to power. He doubts whether we should “outsource major port security to a foreign-based company.”
He makes it sound as though the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and local police agencies all of which provide port security will be retiring as the UAE company Dubai Ports World takes over. This is fantasy. Graham insists that the White House has been “tone-deaf politically” about this issue. He is right, but that doesn’t make it politically deft to misstate facts in an inflammatory way.
Graham, unfortunately, isn’t alone. He is part of a bipartisan herd hoping to win the War on Terror through ill-informed hysteria.
Did some of the 9/11 hijackers come from the UAE, and did the hijackers launder money through that country? Yes, but Britain also has produced terrorists, and the UAE has worked to tighten its financial system. It is arguably our most useful Arab ally, providing an air base and ports crucial to military operations in the Middle East.
The UAE is a kind of Arab model. It is pursuing commercial openness, attempting to orient itself more toward the West. Blackballing the Dubai firm would turn our backs on the UAE’s progress.
Some members of Congress, worried at being portrayed as anti-Arab, have attempted a perverse broad-mindedness by objecting more generally to foreign involvement in U.S. ports. But Dubai Ports World will take over management at certain terminals only because it is purchasing the British company that is already running them. Foreign companies from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and China, among other places already play a huge role at U.S. ports.
It is loosely said that Dubai Ports World would “take over” six ports. That’s false. The ports are owned by local governmental entities, and the company will manage only a few terminals. For instance, it will manage two terminals out of 14 in Baltimore. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns five terminals devoted chiefly to cargo. Dubai Ports World would be involved in only one, which it would manage together with a Danish firm.
A management company has very little to do with port security. It unloads cargo containers and then holds them until they are hauled out by trucks. As homeland-security expert Stewart Verdery says, this is but a small part of the process. The U.S. begins screening select cargo containers at their port of departure. Then, when they are on their way here, computer-based risk analysis is done to decide which containers need further scrutiny.
Dubai Ports World would have no role in determining how containers or ships are reviewed and deciding which containers are inspected. Critics complain that the company will obtain inside information about U.S. ports. But because the UAE has signed on to the Container Security Initiative, in which foreign countries cooperate with the U.S. on safeguards, it already is privy to our security practices in general. The company will probably learn more about specific procedures at individual ports, but this knowledge is not that tightly held.
The unionized employees at the ports would stay the same, and almost all of them are U.S. citizens. It seems unlikely that Dubai Ports World, even if it wanted to, could infiltrate Arab terrorists into the International Longshoremen’s Association to plot mayhem in the United States.
We should worry about port security. But the real vulnerability is foreign ports, where something noxious could be loaded on ships headed here. The nightmare, of course, is a nuclear or radiological device. More resources should be poured into detection technology deployed overseas and in the U.S., where only 37 percent of containers go through radiation detectors. That is a real issue; the furor over Dubai Ports World is a distraction.