“If Not Me Who, If Not Now When?” (Why America Must Manage its Seaports)

Consistent with the Middle-East theme, the above quote captured in the Talmud has no doubt inspired millions over the centuries to meet responsibilities they would rather avoid. With that well known Talmudic quote in mind, I must set a side an earlier decision to stay out of the political debate over the wisdom of a national security issue affecting our posture in the war on terrorism. I join the debate to protest what I fear is a dangerous pattern of government decision making on security now affecting both our seaports and our airports which would have security decisions made on basis’ other than what is best from a security point of view.

In my view, participation in the war in Iraq may make a nation an ally at arms in that conflict but does not make it an ipso facto reliable source for our domestic security. Indeed, with regard to the record of the Emirates in the war on terrorism, need we be reminded yet again that UAE played a leading role in the attack on America on 9/11? Surely we don’t believe that all allies in the war on terrorism have assumed that role with equal vigor. In our war to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan how dedicated to the cause can the Emirates, which has no political parties, no sufferage and only 15 to 20 percent of their population Emiratee be? The real question before us is would you bet the lives of your family on their reliability in support of America?

Since 9/11, the president has repeatedly asked all Americans to become more aware of security risks around us; to report those risks to the proper authorities and to see to it that they are corrected. In response, we have been enlisted in the war on terrorism in which we Americans remain the target of choice. We have been asked by to allow our leaders free reign to dig deeply into our national treasury to support wars against enemies at home and abroad who often remain anonymous, simply identified as “terrorists,” and we have consented. These enemies we are told cannot be distinguished by a national banner, a geographic identity, a single national tongue, or even a race, a faith or a gender and because we are an honorable people we avoid stereotyping as best we can. Officially, we know them by their conduct, by their threats and by their avowed hatred of us and what we stand for. We focus when we can on multi-national organizations: al Qaeda, Hamas, Taliban whose support comes from all over the Middle-East, Europe, and Asia. We cannot subjugate their nation because they are of many nations, sometimes even our own; we cannot seize all of their financial assets because we cannot always identify where their assets are and who is providing them. In short, providing reasonable security against their potential attacks is hardly an undertaking to be conducted with precision; more often than not in defending ourselves at home, we engage in deductive reasoning about foreseeable risks, pray for accurate intelligence, and then do the best we can. Surely our intelligence, military and personal has provided us with enough data to know that while the Emirates may be very helpful in the war against terrorism in their part of the world where seven emirates depends upon it, their willingness and ability to fight that battle on our soil remains a question mark.

What we do know is that some of our allies, especially those in the Middle-East where terrorist organizations have developed strong followings, have already demonstrated that within their own populations America’s enemies remain strong. The United Arab Emirates is not an exception as was demonstrated on 9/11 when two of its nationals and its finances played prominent roles in the attacks against us. Political realities in the Middle-East force us to realize that often governments in that region, even governments we count as allies feel constrained to recognize that their internal stability depends upon their managing the strong anti-American sentiment in their streets without making an issue over the security of America and Americans.

It is because we cannot rely on foreign governments such as UAE and their nationals to protect us that we have alerted our citizens to become more security aware when traveling abroad. It is also the reason we have employed common sense requirements for the issuance of visas to foreign nationals wishing to visit the U.S., often at the expense of the citizens from nations with better terrorism profiles than UAE preferring to err on the side of caution. For the same reason we limit access to our nation even to prominent scientists who may be engaged the development of weapons that can be used against us, or even require the screener of bags and travelers at the airport be an American citizen.

Because of our fear of terrorism we have been asked to support our government’s decision to curtail our liberties under the Patriot Act, and to allow warrantless monitoring of our overseas telephone calls. Now we are asked to forget all of those warnings of terrorism that we have worked so hard to observe, and . . . “people don’t need to worry about security” because our ally the UAE will protect us. But it’s too late for that. The repeated reminders about security awareness have triggered an instinctive reaction to the several years of warnings about the vulnerability of our ports to terrorism. A ground-swell of common sense opposition to the notion of a nation with ties to al Quaeda managing our major seaports is being heard from Americans whose newly developed security awareness and intuition insist upon being heard. We are saying to the administration that just because we may not be able to articulate with precision the specific vulnerabilities this contract represents, don’t think we can be manipulated into believing that which is patently wrong is some how right.

It should be enough that it makes so many of us uncomfortable under the circumstances to have the United Arab Emirates secure our ports or even manage them. Now government needs to exercise the security awareness that it has asked of us.

Update on Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 07:19PM

Are More Than 40 North American Seaports in the Emirates Deal?

How often have we heard: “The devil is in the details?” Well, no sooner have we gotten used to the notion that the 6 American seaports to be taken over by DP World will not present a security problem for America then we find that the scope and scale of the project may be almost seven times greater than we thought. The sale of P&O to DP World, a sale scheduled to be final on March 2nd, will transfer the management of 6 U.S. ports from a British to an Emirati owned company. Much has been said in opposition to the sale on the grounds of national security; a considerable number of arguments for the sale have been offered as well most notably from the President of the United States grounded in the argument that this sale does not present a national security issue. No matter which view you support, the facts need to be heard apart from the politics and the emotion which a deal of this nature was bound to generate in these troubled times. As is often the case, the details in a deal of this size are devilishly hard to get at, but as they emerge the heat generated over this transaction is likely to intensify.

A look at the map of world-wide seaport interests of the P&O on its internet site map shows its involvement on the ground in management, stevedoring, and container terminals is in100 ports, in 19 countries, on 5 continents. While Global Container Terminal Operations involve 7 ports in the United States if we consider the port or NY/NJ separately, P& O’s operations have included responsibility for General Stevedoring in 14 ports on the east coast, and 10 more ports along the Gulf Coast. To that number, if we add the 15 ports on the west coast of Canada, the majority of which are in close proximity to the porous U.S. border, the 6 ports that had originally engendered so much concern plus one more about to be added in Tampa, become more than 40 ports in North America all of which it is assumed DP World will become the successor in interest.

Once again we must ask if it is in the security interest of the United States to have its vital seaport operations under the control of a foreign government located in what has become the most volatile part of the world for the United States. In order to make such a determination an analysis of the risks inherent in the contract needs to be carefully conducted; for Americans to have confidence in the decision, no matter what it is, we need have those facts before us. Finding out through the back door that this contract may indeed involve 23 ports in the U.S. and 17 next door is not a good start.

The UAE is a loose federation of 7 Amirates with a population of about 2.5 million. Approximately 81 percent of the population is not Emirati nationals with about half the population from South Asia and 23 percent from Iran and other Arab states. Of the total population, approximately 96 percent are Muslim of which 84 percent are Sunni. Added to the considerations regarding the potential for instability of a country in which the overwhelming majority have allegiance to other states in which we remain unpopular, are the on-going unresolved border issues between UAE and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Of further concern over the countries involvement in the management and operations of U.S. Seaports is “UAE is a drug transshipment point for traffickers given its proximity to Southwest Asian drug producing countries; the UAE’s position as a major financial center makes it vulnerable to money laundering;…” according to the CIA . (CIA- The World Factbook – United Arab Emirates.) Lasts updated 10 January 2006.

These problems raise the question of the nature and extent of the security in place at the American seaports which may countervail the impact of the concerns expressed over the contract with DP World. Criticism of inadequate security for cargo containers and maritime shipping in general has been a constant source of national concern. The principal agency responsible for port security remains the United States Coast Guard with additional support from (ICE), Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Our ability to screen containers for contraband including weapons of mass destruction and narcotics is limited by the sheer volume of tonnage coming into American ports. Our technology at port side for examining cargo containers and the holds of ships is both limited and ineffective in determining contents without open inspection. We rely primarily on known shippers to account for the contents of containers and have stringent requirements for training of shipper personnel to accomplish the task. Our federal agencies do not do the actual inspections nor generally have a presence in the foreign ports where containers are loaded. In our ports they are primarily tasked with enforcing cargo screening programs spot checking the most suspect containers. With that in mind, we need to determine whether the foreign port management given its characteristics represents an acceptable risk to national security given the number of ports, the depth of the security in place and the stability of the contractor, in this case a foreign government.

Predicting crime and terrorism in advance is at best an estimate of the likelihood of its occurrence given the totality of the circumstances. What is reasonable by way of preventing such occurrences should be based upon the magnitude of the harm which will be caused if we do not act reasonably to prevent it. Issues of national security should be made by our national leaders who presumably are in the best position to evaluate them. It is left to the rest of us to live and die with those decisions and hopefully those who make them will continue to do everything possible to earn our support.
(The statistical sources for the number of P&O maritime sites can be found on www.poports.com)
(The statistical sources and other fact information for the United Arab Emirates can be found on www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ae.html)

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