A lot has been said about the matter of handing a United Arab Emirates firm control of 6 U.S. ports. So much, in fact, that I haven’t felt the need to say much about it until now. Last week, I got a bit of perspective on it from someone who spent years working in the auto industry, and it shed some light on at least one problematic angle.
The auto industry analogy went something like this. Whoever you let into your factory or buys your factory —like the Japanese, for example — has your technology. Once they have it, they know it’s strengths and weaknesses and they can exploit both. In the case of the auto industry, that means they’ll probably remake your product better and cheaper than you did.
In the case of port security, it goes something like this. Whoever runs your ports knows the strengths and weaknesses of your security and they can exploit both. Given that, according to the 9/11 commission, the Bush administration has done squat on port security since 9/11, there are plenty of holes and weaknesses to exploit.
Their report card, excerpted at left, asserts that the government’s progress is spotty at best. It was released in December by the commission’s successor, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project. The report evaluated 41 recommendations made by the commission in 2004.
A dozen major issues, including cargo screening, received a grade of D. Five were judged flat-out failures, including slow progress on a new radio frequency for rescue workers, which is at least three years away. The lack of dedicated broadcast spectrum “is probably going to cost a lot of lives” in future emergencies, Mr. Kean said.
And that’s only part of the problem.
The UAE is a dictatorship (“Suffrage: none” = dictatorship). Even bloggers on the right have said as much. Dictatorships can turn on a dime. The Dubai company that may be running the ports in question is government owned. Then there’s the matter of the the country’s dubious ties to terrorists , the Bush administration, and the Bush family. Nevermind that the members of the UAE royal family are also Bin Laden’s hunting buddies. Given his oft repeated promises, how would the Dubai ports deal help Bin Laden bring his battle (back) to the U.S.?
Joseph King, who headed the customs agency’s anti-terrorism efforts under the Treasury Department and the new Department of Homeland Security, said national security fears are well grounded.
He said a company the size of Dubai Ports World would be able to get hundreds of visas to relocate managers and other employees to the United States. Using appeals to Muslim solidarity or threats of violence, al-Qaeda operatives could force low-level managers to provide some of those visas to al-Qaeda sympathizers, said King, who for years tracked similar efforts by organized crime to infiltrate ports in New York and New Jersey. Those sympathizers could obtain legitimate driver’s licenses, work permits and mortgages that could then be used by terrorist operatives.
Dubai Ports World could also offer a simple conduit for wire transfers to terrorist operatives in the Middle East. Large wire transfers from individuals would quickly attract federal scrutiny, but such transfers, buried in the dozens of wire transfers a day from Dubai Ports World’s operations in the United States to the Middle East would go undetected, King said.
While the current UAE regime may be “a friend” according to the administration and it’s supporters, that “friendship” can change overnight if some upstart general or family member stages a successful coup or, for that matter, if the current dictator simply changes his mind. Then, under this deal, we could wake up in the morning with a decidedly less-than-friendly regime running our ports and knowing where the holes are. Having dictator’s as friends, can be messy. After all, Saddam Hussein was “a friend” once too.
That’s the potential blowback from calling a dictator a “friend.” Add it all up and it spells a national security risk born out of clueless incompetence and cronyism that could potentially cost lives if reality falls short of administration’s sunny predictions. We’ve already seen the results of that in Iraq. Do we really want to “wait and see” if something similar happens on U.S. soil?