The controversial purchase of a port services company by a government-owned firm from the United Arab Emirates has highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. ports to terrorist attack or infiltration.
Unlike airports, which are structures with well-defined perimeters controlled by a single entity and single national standard, America's ports are sprawling, usually right in the heart of major population centers, accessible by rail, highway and water.
The United States' 361 ports and harbors are governed and policed by a complicated mix of local, state and national authorities, and much of the responsibility for daily security is under the control of commercial users and leasers in ports. The United States Coast Guard estimates it will cost some $5.6 billion to secure American ports -- but most of that cost is on the shoulders of the businesses who use the ports -- and many, if not most, are not American-owned companies.
It is that fact that has put the purchase by Dubai Port World Inc. of Britain's P&O Ports, set to be finalized March 2, under such scrutiny. P&O's North American subsidiary runs public terminals, where cargo is loaded and unloaded, at six major U.S. ports, and renders port services like stevedoring at a total of 21 ports on the East and Gulf Coasts.
DP World is owned by the leader of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally in the Middle East with a murky relationship with international terrorism.
During Bush administration deliberations on whether to allow the merger in December the Coast Guard said there were "many intelligence gaps concerning the potential for DPW or P&O assets to support terrorist operations that precludes an overall threat assessment of the potential merger."
The merger was approved anyway, based on assurances and intelligence analyses that said the sale did not pose any special threats.
Port authorities, industry experts and government officials say the security challenge at ports is far broader than any single company. While the possibility that a terrorist or a sympathizer could compromise a port is real, that danger is inherent in the nature of ports and the slow progress being made in securing them.
Seaports are a fat target in two ways, a former Coast Guard official still involved in the shipping industry told UPI. Seaports are often located near big cites and critical infrastructure like oil refineries or chemical plants. A terrorist attack on a port could have major secondary effects and mass casualties, and could shut down a large part of the U.S. economy -- some 95 percent of foreign produced American consumer goods pass through seaports, and 100 percent of foreign oil does.
But the primary threat is not believed to be a direct physical attack on seaports. It is in trans-shipment.
"The greatest threat we face to global maritime security is the potential for terrorists to use the international maritime system to smuggle terrorist weapons -- or even terrorists -- into targeted countries," said Rear Adm. Craig Bone, U.S. Coast Guard director of inspection and compliance at a House hearing in January.
In March 2004, Israel -- one of the most security conscious nations in the world -- experienced exactly that: Two Palestinian suicide bombers hid behind a false wall in a container trucked from Gaza to the Israeli Port of Ashdod 15 miles from Tel Aviv. The container was inspected electronically and visually at the port entrance but the terrorists were not detected. The container was driven to the port, where the terrorists emerged and detonated explosive vests, killing 10 port workers.
Airport manifests and cargo are closely screened for names and dangerous articles. But the sheer volume of people and cargo moving in and out of seaports means most do not get scrutinized. Of the 25,000 shipping containers arriving daily at American ports, just 5 percent are physically searched.
The Homeland Security Department insists they are the right 5 percent. They are selected through risk assessments conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in a multi-layered program put into place since the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act.
Among the new layers of security is a requirement that vessel operators carrying containerized cargo file an electronic manifest 24 hours before they load their ships bound for the United States in a foreign port. That system is not fool-proof -- the information often changes in transit, and unscreened documents are often presented to U.S Customs when ships arrive in port.
In some cases, under the Customs and Border Patrol's Container Security Initiative, cargo is searched in foreign ports prior to loading. Customs has agreements in just over 40 ports worldwide of the United States' 140 trading partners.
Vessels are also required to provide the Coast Guard port captain with a notice of arrival 96 hours before entering port.
Federal agencies also have non-intrusive inspection equipment to inspect containers for radioactive or nuclear material in U.S. ports. More than 140 radiation portal monitor systems in the ports of New York/New Jersey and the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and abroad through the Department of Energy's overseas initiative.
As of January there were 59 imaging systems that can peer into containers like an X-ray, but they are slow; they can check only 20 containers an hour, according to Edward Bilkey, the chief operating officer of DP World, who testified to the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday.
There are also 143 radiation portal monitors -- through which containers move like in a car wash -- and 3,500 handheld radiation detectors. These are distributed between the 361 American seaports, according to the Coast Guard but concentrated in large ports. More than half the cargo coming into the United States passes through a handful of ports, primarily New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Baltimore and Miami.
U.S. Customs also has a program to encourage maritime industries in implementing security practices to protect cargo from terrorism throughout the chain of custody