Dubai Deal Seen as Sidelight to Poor Port Security

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Critics say the United States will become more vulnerable to terrorist threats if the Arab-owned company Dubai Ports World gains control of operations at six U.S. ports. But officials who monitor the ports say security is a major concern anyway.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And more now on port security. Officials who monitor the ports say that irrespective of the Dubai deal, security remains a major concern. But the real issue is money. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Twenty-five thousand shipping containers, each the size of a small home, enter the nation's 361 ports each day. The main security worry is that by the latest figures, only 5.6 percent of containers are pulled off ships or scanned with x-rays or gamma rays.

Michael O'Hanlon(ph), senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the number is so low simply because we don't have the funding to inspect more.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): My own instinct is that you got to be somewhere into the double figures range. The reason why we're only at five percent is capacity. It's not, there's no other reason why we're only inspecting one of 20 containers. We just don't have enough people yet, don't have enough machines.

PESCA: Of course if there was more money, most experts predict there would be tightened security. How much more money?

Ms. SUSAN MONTEVERDE(ph) (Vice President, American Association of Port Authorities): The funding level, last year Congress appropriated $175 million dollars. We believe that the funding level should be $400 million dollars.

PESCA: Susan Monteverde is the vice president of the American Association of Port Authorities. She says our ports are safe but we're just doing the minimum. The extra funding would be used for such programs as building emergency command centers or installing camera surveillance systems around ports that are relying on fences.

There has undoubtedly been improvement. A little over a year ago, Henry Willis co-authored a report on port security for the Rand Corporation. Since that time, some technology has proved effective. Some hasn't.

Mr. HENRY WILLIS (Co-Author, Rand Corporation Report on Port Security): Since we published our report, the department is moving forward with a container seal stand regulation. And this is an example of good progress. Our radio frequency identification is a technology that is getting mixed results.

PESCA: All containers are scanned for radiation. Which in the opinion of maritime security expert Rob Quartel is easily beaten by lead casing.

Mr. ROB QUARTEL (CEO, FreightDesk Technologies): Most of us think radiation detectors are virtually useless too. If you're a terrorist and you want to bring in fissile material, the basis for a nuclear weapon, the odds are you're going to put it in an oil tanker or a product tanker or a grain vessel or something else for which there's no external means of looking for the material.

PESCA: In other words, as one part of the security grid tightens, another will spring a leak.

As for a dirty bomb, Quartel, who is CEO of FreightDesk Technologies and is a former federal maritime commissioner, said it's so easy for terrorists to assemble that kind of weapon from material available in America, there'd be little reason to ship it in.

Michael O'Hanlon paints a scenario where terrorists ship a hundred surface to air missiles to the U.S. and reasonably hope that one or two get through the cracks in the system. But there is near unanimity in the idea that port safety doesn't depend on keeping foreign companies from owning the rights to US terminals. It depends on the US owning up to its own security obligations. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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