Company's Takeover of U.S. Ports Raises Security Concerns

A company based in the United Arab Emirates is taking over the operation of six American ports, including New York, Baltimore and New Orleans. Dubai Ports Worldwide is buying London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation. New York Sen. Charles Schumer has criticized the deal, saying he is concerned about outsourcing services that affect national security.

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Thanks to a successful bid, the leading port operator in the Middle East will now control six terminals at U.S. ports.

Dubai Ports World won a bidding contest for the United Kingdom's P&O ports. Some in the United States are expressing security concerns about the United Arab Emerits controlling American ports.

NPR's Adam Davidson has the story.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

New York Senator Charles Schumer is taking the lead on attacking the deal by using language sure to get any New Yorker's attention.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): In our post-911 world, you can't be too careful. And the fact that the United Arab Emerits, even though it is now an ally of the United States, was the place where many of the hijackers came, should ring alarm bells when we hear that a company controlled by the United Arab Emerits is in charge of security now at our ports.

DAVIDSON: Schumer painted a grim picture of potential terrorists taking over our nations entryways.

Senator SCHUMER: This deal would give this company, Dubai Ports, control of our ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami, Norfolk, and Philadelphia.

DAVIDSON: However scary Schumer's remarks are, his facts could be disputed. While two of the 911 hijackers are thought to have come from the United Arab Emerits, a loose alliance of Arab states, none are from Dubai, the country in question.

And the company will not control all of any ports, says Steve Coleman, spokesman for the Port Authority in New York and New Jersey.

Mr. STEVE COLEMAN (Port Authority spokesman): No. Dubai Port World would have control over one terminal in the port of New York and New Jersey.

DAVIDSON: In total, Dubai Ports World would have contracts to load and unload ships on a handful of terminals at six United States ports. But, Coleman says, lots of local and federal agencies will be there, too.

Mr. COLEMAN: U.S. Customs is in charge of cargo container security.

DAVIDSON: Immigration officials check cargo to see if any people have been snuck on board. Port Authority police make sure the terminals stay secure.

Mr. COLEMAN: The Coast Guard would be responsible for anything that happens before the actual cargo container ships arrive here from out in the ocean, and through the various port channels.

DAVIDSON: For all the perceived fear, Coleman says, the Dubai would find it very difficult to sneak any terrorists, weapons, or any other bad things past all those feds, if it wanted to.

Stephen Flynn is a former Coast Guard commander, who now studies port security for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Ph.D, Former Commander, U.S. Coast Guard): There's a lot to be worried about. But this particular purchase of terminal operations inside the United States by Dubai Ports, I would not place at the top of my list of concerns.

DAVIDSON: Flynn points out that Dubai is a close United States ally. Dubai Ports World manages terminal operations all over the globe, and there are far more real fears.

Mr. FLYNN: What people should be most worried about is that when containers are stopped at the point of origin, when they're loaded up with cargo, it can be in some very scary neighborhoods.

DAVIDSON: The container coming in to, say, New Jersey today, might have been loaded in an unsecure port in a dangerous part of the Middle East or Asia. It might have then traded hands a dozen or more times before making its way here.

And the main security feature, the one thing that ensures the container holds what its shipper it holds, is a tiny plastic seal that costs a dollar, and is easily tampered with.

Again, Stephen Flynn.

Mr. FLYNN: We've got, essentially, a global network that moves millions of containers around the planet with very little in the way of adult supervision.

DAVIDSON: Flynn says only a small percentage of containers are checked at all in the U.S., even though the technology exists to effectively x-ray every container that comes in to the country.

But Flynn says he's not surprised that there's been more focus on the ownership of one part of certain ports, rather than on serious port security reform.

Mr. FLYNN: What I find distressing is it remains, I think, so little understanding within the U.S. government, and within the American citizenry, about how a system we so depend upon in our society actually works.

DAVIDSON: Flynn points out that pretty much everything we buy these days has at least some parts that came to the United States through a port. Ports have become utterly vital to our way of life.

But, he says, if politicians and the public don't understand how they work, there's little hope that they can be properly secured.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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