Alexander's Column

The port of public opinion

Mark Alexander · Feb. 24, 2006

Protests about the planned transfer of management for several U.S. seaports to a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates are fraught with almost as much confusion as fervor – which explains why the current division within the political parties is almost as stark as the one between them. When Karl Rove, Jimmy Carter and The Los Angeles Times line up on one side of an issue, while Senators Bill Frist, Chuck Schumer and The New York Times line up on the other, something is seriously amiss.

Of course, the first casualty of political conquest is the truth, which is not to say that both sides don’t feel genuine concern. In an effort to elucidate the issue, let us first distinguish between fact and fiction.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multi-agency panel that evaluates foreign financial interests in the U.S. with national-security implications, has approved the transfer of management of some port terminals (not the sale of these ports) in New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans and Houston. The transfer is from a British owned company, Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, to Dubai Ports World, which is headquartered in the UAE. What this means, essentially, is that American managers and longshoremen will now get their checks cut by DPW instead of P&O. In other words, DPW will become one of many operators in these ports.

This does not put DPW in a position to act as an agent for al-Qa'ida, delivering weapons of mass destruction to their terror-cell operatives in the U.S., as has been suggested by some print and Internet tabloids. Direct responsibility for port security is shared by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and state and local port authorities. Here it should also be noted that port-management priorities are wholly subordinate to port-security priorities. Of course, port-security operations, particularly those pertaining to interdiction of WMD, are augmented by the entire asset base of the U.S. military, its intelligence community and its law enforcement agencies.

Despite the rancor, the U.S. does not outsource the protection of our critical national-security infrastructure.

Approval of the DPW proposal underwent three months of interagency review. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, “This review definitely was not cursory and it definitely was not casual. Rather, it was in depth and comprehensive.” This is the same review that management companies based in China, Denmark, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan underwent before being authorized to manage terminals in the port of Los Angeles. We might add, China now manages some terminals on both ends of the Panama Canal.

Foreign investment in the U.S., including port management, is nothing new.

As for the assertion that President George Bush should have known about the proposal, Frances Townsend, his senior advisor for Homeland Security, counters, “Rarely do these [reviews] wind up on the president’s desk and that’s only after there has been an investigation and there is some disagreement. This didn’t get there because none of the agencies who reviewed it had any objection.”

The public remonstration in this case is the result of a volatile combination of legitimate sentiments: a fundamental distrust of Islamic countries combined with a concern about the potential for terrorist exploitation of our busy shipping ports.

The distrust is warranted, particularly in the wake of 9/11. Not only were two of the hijackers from the UAE, but 11 of the Saudi hijackers traveled to the U.S. from Dubai, and $250,000 used to bankroll the 9/11 attacks was wired through Dubai banks. There were ties between Islamist emirs in the UAE and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and the UAE recognized the Taliban government.

On the latter point, however, our intel sources indicate those ties enabled the CIA to confirm the location of bin Laden twice in 1999, but the Clinton administration declined to eliminate him. Bill Clinton has floated several excuses for why he did not act on this intelligence – which all sank.

Further, Pakistani nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan testified that a UAE company assisted him with the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran. However, as we noted two years ago, our sources indicate that Khan was either a CIA operative or a dupe and that the UAE cooperated fully with surveillance of Khan’s contacts in Dubai.

Thus, if we want to punish the UAE because it has airports and banks, or because it has cooperated with CIA clandestine counter-proliferation efforts, so be it. There is, however, no suggestion of evidence that the UAE government had any knowledge, much less complicity, with the al-Qa'ida cell responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or any other attack on U.S. interests or personnel. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence that the UAE, along with Kuwait and now Iraq, is a critical ally in the region.

Indeed, since 9/11 the UAE government has provided significant intelligence and staging support in the war against Jihadistan. They have actively participated in the pursuit of al-Qa'ida terrorists. In 2002, for example, UAE officials arrested and turned over to U.S. officials Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who conspired in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and masterminded the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. In 2004, UAE officials arrested Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who trained thousands of al-Qa'ida operatives around the world. He was returned to U.S. interrogators in Pakistan.

As for Dubai Ports World, it already provides support for U.S. Navy ships in Jebel Ali and Fujairah, which accommodates more U.S. Navy ships than any other international port. DPW is also the primary support contractor for U.S. Air Force assets at Al Dhafra Air Base.

Rising above the din, the real issue is this: America’s seaports constitute one of many big holes in our border security, regardless of who manages the terminals. Despite the port security that exists both stateside and in the ports of origin, there is no guarantee that WMD won’t be smuggled into the U.S. in one of the thousands of cargo containers that land on our shores each and every day.

As we have noted before, when al-Qa'ida has mated the right nuclear core with the right weapons hardware (something they may have already succeeded in doing), getting that weapon into the U.S. will not be that difficult, regardless of who is managing and securing entry points. The harsh reality is that there simply is no way to secure U.S. borders, with even a modest degree of confidence, against importation of nuclear WMD hardware the size of a footlocker, and a fissile core the size of an orange.

This reality accounts for the Bush Doctrine of Pre-emption – take the fight to the enemy and endeavor to wage war on their turf, not ours. It is a reality for which pre-emption is our only option – our only chance of preventing a catastrophic attack on our nation.

This is certainly not to suggest that we adopt the French border-security model – one in which we throw up our hands and run away. Indeed, we need to be vigilant about territorial security. However, allowing a UAE company to manage some port terminals does not constitute a surrender from such vigilance.

For the public, there may be some psychological solace in the assertion that preventing DPW from managing port terminals is tantamount to securing our destiny – but it is a false sense of security.

The public confusion, media hysterics and, consequently, opportunistic political posturing and demagoguery have all but completely obscured the facts pertaining to our relationship with the UAE and its shipping conglomerate, DPW. The Democrats have used this issue to leapfrog to the right of Republicans on national security, and some Republicans responded quickly by adopting the same line on DPW. Unfortunately, both are doing so at the peril of our national security.

Not only has President Bush declared, “The UAE has been a valuable partner in fighting the war on terror,” but has even threatened to veto any legislation to undo this deal. As he has yet to use his veto for any legislation (to our utter dismay, given some great opportunities), threatening a veto in this case can only mean that the consequences of derailing our relationship with the UAE constitute a grave threat to our national security.

Most likely, a compromise on UAE/DPW between the White House and Republican congressional leaders was brokered prior to public objections from Sen. Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. If that compromise is anything other than a “technical delay” in approving this transaction, we believe U.S. national security will suffer the consequences.

Feel safer now?