Who Should Monitor Security at the Nation's Ports?

President Bush on Tuesday weighed in on the escalating debate over who should U.S. ports. The president said he would veto any legislation to block a deal that would transfer operations of six U.S. ports to a firm controlled by the United Arab Emirates.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Earlier this hour, President Bush weighed in on the escalating debate over who should run the nation's ports. The president said he would veto any legislation that would block a deal to transfer operations of six American ports to a firm controlled by the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai Ports World is owned by the government of Dubai, which is one of the United Arab Emirates. It recently purchased the British company that manages most port operations in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans. The deal, which has been approved by the White House, is causing an uproar among politicians on both sides of the aisle, up and down the east coast, and raising some prickly questions about who monitors security at our nation's ports.

Joining us now is Rob Quartel, the Chairman and CEO of Freightdesk Technologies. His company provides information management systems to governments and corporations involved in freight transportation. He's also a former United States Federal Maritime Commissioner, and he joins us from Rice University in Houston, Texas. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ROB QUARTEL (Chairman and CEO of Freightdesk Technologies): Thank you very much.

CONAN: Both Governor Pataki of New York and Governor Ehrlich of Maryland have expressed concern, several senators, members of Congress. Emergency legislation to block this deal is in the works. Is this concern warranted?

Mr. QUARTEL: No. You know I think it's one thing to be concerned and to monitor. It's another thing altogether to try to block it. It's simple political grandstanding. And unfortunately, it's on both sides of the aisle.

CONAN: Now these ports, their operations were run by a British company before. It suddenly seems a little awkward to suddenly object when it's Dubai.

Mr. QUARTEL: Absolutely. You know, the reality is, it's just an economic transaction. They're buying control of the company that actually has a contract to manage it. When all is said and done, it's going to be the same people running the port day to day, the same managers managing it. The manager's managers' managers will report to a different board, but it's the same people.

The ports continue to be owned by the taxpayers. They can't be moved. Customs still looks at the containers to see if they're secure. The Coast Guard still patrols the ports, looks at the ships, checks the people, and they're still subject to the same rules. There's nothing different except because Dubai ports is a wealthy company, they will probably end up with better security because they'll have more money put in the right place.

CONAN: And security, or at least concerns about security, are the issues being raised by most of the politicians who've been speaking out about this. But I think I just heard you say the Coast Guard is still in charge of security?

Mr. QUARTEL: Absolutely. The Coast Guard patrols the port, they look at the ships in advance, they get advance information. They get information about the sailors on the ships. And of course, the U.S. Customs checks all of the containers coming in to the United States before they even leave the foreign ports from which they're sent. And the ports themselves have to operate under a common set of rules. So, nothing changes. What has changed is it's a good target for grandstanding politicians.

CONAN: Well, there are also, I think Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon today, that Dubai has been a partner in the war against terrorism, and, of course, runs an enormous port there in the Persian Gulf as well. Their track record is pretty good.

Mr. QUARTEL: Well, not only that. Not only has D.O.D., the Department of Defense, known Dubai Ports for a long time and worked with them at Homeland Security and others, their county, UAE, was the first country in the Middle- East to allow U.S. Customs inspectors in their ports.

CONAN: But if this company owned, ran these operations, I mean, wouldn't they have a lot of information suddenly about sensitive information, possibly security information in American ports?

Mr. QUARTEL: Well, that's a very good question. And I suspect that most of the information is company-confidential. In fact, what ports actually have in terms of information about the parties in the ports is very limited. They typically would have less information than an ocean carrier would have, and of course, I'm sure most people don't know that all of the ships that come into our country carrying containers are themselves foreign-owned, and have information on the cargos, and where they've been, and where they're going.

So ports, in fact, don't have all the information on what's going in and out of their port. You know, the Port Authority, the port itself continues to be owned by taxpayers in New York, and Miami, and Houston, and other places. What we're talking abut here is the company that's actually managing the docks and running the long shore operations, which are themselves contracted out, etc., etc. Like the cranes, and things like that.

CONAN: I guess it remains to be seen how this is going to be playing out. gain, just to, within the last hour, the White House said President Bush would veto any legislation that tried to block this. Senator Frist, the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate said he would introduce a bill to try to block this deal if the White House didn't nix it. So I guess we're going to be running up into a political problem. But again, in terms of operations, you say there would be no difference between when these companies are run by the British-owned Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company or when they're owned by Dubai Ports.

Mr. QUARTEL: Well, at the ground level, the answer is absolutely not. The people who are today running the cranes, the Americans running those cranes will be the Americans running those cranes tomorrow. The people they report to are Americans, and they will continue to be the people they report to. What's different is the president of P&O America, or the company that was sold to Dubai Ports, will report to a different board. And I think my understanding is he probably will be staying on. So at the operational level, nothing changes. At the security level, nothing changes, because security is in the hands of the Coast Guard.

CONAN: And Rob Quartel, I'm afraid we're out of time, but thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. QUARTEL: Great, thanks.

CONAN: Rob Quartel, Chairman and CEO of Freightdesk Technologies, former United States Federal Maritime Commissioner. This is NPR News.

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