Retired Commander Urges Stronger Port Security

Retired Coast Guard Commander Stephen Flynn talks with Robert Siegel about a Dubai-based company's potential operating rights at major U.S. ports. Flynn says that the United States needs to bolster security at its shipping ports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For more on this story now, we turn to Stephen Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a retired Coast Guard officer who has written extensively on port security in the past few years. Welcome back to the program, Steve Flynn.

Commander STEPHEN FLYNN (U.S. Coast Guard, retired): I'm glad to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, are you at all concerned about which country the company is based in that buys P and O that operates U.S. ports?

Commander FLYNN: I am somewhat concerned, but not as apprehensive as I am about the overall state of security with regard to our ports and containers. And the issue here really is that, do we have adequate security measures in place? Do we have adequate oversight of those standards in light of the fact that our ports really are national security assets, they're central to our economy, it's where our cities are and where most of our people live. So are we doing enough on the security front almost regardless who owns it? And my concern is that the answer to that is no.

SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to hear what some of the other dimensions are that you're concerned with, but first, the issue of ownership. Is it inappropriate for any foreign owner, bear in mind it was a British owner until recently, to be operating ports? When you were with the Coast Guard, did you interact with that company? Did it make any difference who the owner of that company was?

Commander FLYNN: Well, nobody owns the ports, of course. There are leases that port authorities provide them. And virtually all of these now are foreign- owned. Close to 90 percent of the terminals on the West Coast of the United States, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Seattle, Tacoma and Oakland, are by foreign-owned companies. And the East Coast, it's more than 50 percent.

So this has been going on for quite some time, which raises all the more reason why you want to make sure that the security measures that are in place are adequate, given that there is some risk with relying on private sector to do all your security, but also if they're foreign-owned private sector, that raises the bar just a little bit higher.

SIEGEL: But before we even address the question of who the foreign country is, when a foreign-owned company has a lease to operate a port, do you see many nationals from that ownership country around the port, or are they simply the employers of the Americans who are working in Seattle, Tacoma or Long Beach or wherever?

Commander FLYNN: In the vast majority of our terminals, if you went there, even though they're foreign-owned, you will see lots of American faces. You'll see them in the office. You'll certainly see them working in the terminals, because those are longshoremen. You'll see a sprinkling of foreign nationals who are from the home country. But the reality is, this is going to be, on U.S. soil, largely American-run operations.

SIEGEL: If the ownership of the company that's operating the port is not tops on your list of security concerns about shipping, what is top of your list?

Commander FLYNN: First, what I'm most worried about is the control of containers from the point when they're stuffed in the first place at a factory to get to a loading port, whether we have adequate controls there. Because there, there are ample opportunities for mischief. Secondly, are we checking adequately the containers before they're loaded on ships bound for the United States? And then, when we get to actually what's happening in U.S. ports, is things like the qualifications of the security firms that are being hired, and then the resources that are available to Customs and Coast Guard to provide oversight. Those resources haven't been stepped up near enough in light of the importance that ports play in our economy and the risk that this poses.

SIEGEL: I just wanted to ask you one question. This is perhaps stretching an analogy, an historical analogy, that one might invoke in this case. When the Israeli commandos struck at Entebbe Airport back in Uganda years ago to rescue a planeload of hostages, the way they knew their way around was that an Israeli company had built that terminal. They had all the blueprints. They knew the way the airport worked. It seemed to be a great advantage to them. That's the way historians and journalists have written about it. Is that a concern? Should we be concerned about how much access there is to details of buildings at critical places in the United States?

Commander FLYNN: We should be. And what we haven't done to date, and I think there's a lot more work to be done, and that's why I think there's legitimate angst on Capitol Hill, is that we're now realizing that many of the infrastructure we took for granted as purely commercial, we're realizing are truly national security assets. And the kind of practices we've had before of essentially letting the market decide how best to do ownership or how best to do the security operations, maybe we need to look at that again, because we're in a different world, as the president keeps reminding us. And in light of that here, we need to adapt, not just how the United States works in terms of its national security apparatus overseas, but how we think abut the infrastructures that underpin our way of life.

SIEGEL: Stephen Flynn, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Commander FLYNN: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Stephen Flynn, former Commander in the United State Coast Guard, now retired, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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