The country is up in arms about the Bush administration's proposed transfer of management authority over six marine terminals to Dubai investors. Now I concede that, given the Administration's usual allergic reaction to the Arab world, the whole thing seems quite fishy, and you have to wonder why the President's first veto threat in five years is over this contract. Having said that, though, based on what I heard from former Senator Gary Hart at lunch yesterday, I believe that everyone is getting worked up about the wrong risks.
Hart, the co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security, said that his commission found that even before 9-11 the failure to inspect shipping containers was the biggest point of vulnerability in U.S. transportation networks. Stephen Flynn, a top port-security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, has been proclaiming for years that we have a big problem -- but that problem isn't who owns the terminals at the U.S. end.
Every month since the attack on the World Trade Center, thousands of containers bound for American destinations have been loaded onto ships in the ports of Dubai, Karachi, Beirut, Port Said, and even Aden. These ports are vulnerable to infiltration by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups -- Dubai probably the least so. And when these ships arrive in U.S. ports, only four to five percent of the containers they deliver are subject to any security search at all. The New York Times this morning reported that "There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up..."
Yes, Dubai served as a way station for the shipment of nuclear materials by notorious Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan's network, and no, he didn't have to worry about being apprehended there. But loading a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon into a container in Dubai wouldn't require that the terminal at the U.S. end be under Dubai ownership. Only one of the six U.S. ports in question even has a working radiation detector!
Who is worrying about real security problems? Everyone, it seems, except the Department that was created to defend our homeland security. When he was still a Senator, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine tried to pass legislation to tighten security for chemical plants, but the Administration nixed his efforts. Teamster President James Hoffa has been leading the effort to improve rail safety, reporting that "85 percent of rail workers we surveyed told us that there has been no increase in the number of rail police or security, even on lines that carry toxic cargo, such as radioactive waste and chlorine gas. Trespassers still have easy access to rail yards, and locomotive engines are unsecured on the miles of track between cities and towns..."
When the Sierra Club and the DC City Council tried to have dangerous shipments of chemical gasses rerouted away from the back steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, the Administration went to court to protect the right of railroads to ship such toxic materials right past the building.
It is hard to avoid concluding, as columnist New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this morning, that the media have come unglued about the Dubai Port deal because they want to engage in the sport of "kicking Arabs in the teeth." Hart said at lunch that the real issue is actually our financing of terrorism through our dependence on imported oil -- but the President, even during his recent tour of renewable energy facilities, has carefully refrained from repeating his pledge to kick our addiction to Middle Eastern oil. And so far there's been no major media or political outcry at his abandonment of that promise -- the one that really matters.
It's frankly a mystery. When the Sierra Club polled Americans last summer, we found overwhelming public support for major new investments in port security and in chemical and nuclear safeguards. As yet, though, neither politicians nor the media have seemed willing to respond to that hunger for real safety and genuine security.