WASHINGTON -- Port security professionals say the management takeover at six U.S. ports, including Baltimore, by a Middle Eastern company poses little actual security threat, especially compared with the continuing security problems at U.S. seaports.
What federal and local officials should worry about, these professionals say, are the security gaps that terrorists could easily exploit and that the Bush administration and Congress have failed to fix in the past four years.
"This [deal] is not near the top of the list of things to worry about," said Stephen Flynn, a port security specialist and retired Coast Guard commander who has been a critic of the Bush administration's performance on security.
Americans should instead focus on how few controls there are over what goes into shipping containers and who has access to port facilities, he said.
The $6.8 billion takeover by Dubai Ports World of British-owned Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. and its terminal operations at six East Coast seaports met with immediate criticism that the company could become a terrorist vehicle. Dubai has been characterized as a logistic nerve center for al-Qaida.
In an interview yesterday on CNN, Dubai Ports World chief operation officer Ted Bilkey said the company would do "anything possible" to assure that the deal goes through, and he insisted it created no security threat for the United States.
"The people here are not going to change," Bilkey said. "The structure isn't going to change."
Flynn said the risks have been overblown. The company's staff will be largely American and terrorists originate from many countries including Britain, Flynn said. No one voiced concerns when the port operations were being run by the British company, he said.
It is reasonable, however, for Congress to raise questions about the scrutiny the deal received, said retired Adm. James Loy, a former No. 2 official at the Department of Homeland Security. The administration "misread" the political need to be more forthcoming about the vetting process, Loy said, but members of Congress should be requesting a comprehensive briefing rather than "running to the first microphone."
Additional oversight might be warranted. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, cast doubt on the effectiveness of the review process in a September report. The three-decade-old process for assessing these deals was not updated after 9/11, and the GAO concluded that the group that conducts the review is "reluctant to initiate investigations."
Larger problems with port security are the real issue, Loy said. Seaports do not have the security measures they should because the country has been fixated on airport security, he said.
Because the 9/11 attacks came via four airplanes, he said, port security has fallen into the "oh, by the way" category. Had al-Qaida attacked four ports, the response would have been the reverse, said Loy, who headed the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.
Flynn, Loy and others point to three major holes in America's port security: the ease with which outsiders can enter facilities, incomplete information about what is being shipped and the absence of nationwide security standards for ports.
It is easier to bribe a truck driver "to take an extra-long lunch break" than to conspire with a foreign-owned company that risks loosing billions if its security is jeopardized, Flynn said.
There is no requirement for employee identification cards at ports, which means every person working at a port could be compromised, including the 11,000 trucking companies and countless private security firms. Some ports require background checks, but the process is "haphazard," he said.
Loy said credentialing has been hindered in part by cumbersome international negotiations to create a global standard for ports.
"It is one of the great frustrations I have that we haven't figured that out yet," he said.
Port authorities also need much better information on what is in containers, Loy said.
While the Homeland Security department has been enhancing its National Targeting Center, a clearinghouse for information on containers, Loy and others said it still lacks sophistication.
There is no way to track a shipment of T-shirts, for example, from its departure point in China to its arrival in Baltimore.
"We've done an awful lot of very good things," he said, "I just don't have in my gut the feeling that they have truly identified all the right data pieces and all the means to connect the dots."
Securing funding to build networks and databases locally has been a challenge, said Jerry Hultin, president of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. He has studied the port of New York-New Jersey, which has been unable to get federal funding to build a local network. It would cost $500,000 to $1 million.
In addition, said Flynn, there is no comprehensive system to check containers as they are loaded overseas and seal them to ensure they are not tampered with. He has launched a pilot program in Hong Kong that uses a combination of technologies to quickly scan all containers before they leave, and he has spent the past year trying to get Homeland Security on board
Lack of uniformity in port security procedures is also a problem, said former Los Angeles port police chief Noel Cunningham. The system, he said, discourages ports from voluntarily taking security steps because it adds costs. Shipping companies will use a port that has less-demanding procedures because ports set their own security rules.
"You need to keep the playing field level for all the ports," he said. There is a bill in the Senate that would set national standards for security procedures, but it has not gained momentum.
Meanwhile, the Washington furor over the United Arab Emirates deal has also obscured what is perhaps the federal government's greatest security problem: Without a national accounting of security priorities, Cunningham said, there is no way to know how ports rank as a potential terrorist target compared to vast stretches of open borders.
"We need to have some national leadership in securing our ports," he said. "And national leadership should come first by prioritizing the threats."