When mayors, governors, and members of Congress learned that a company from the United Arab Emirates was poised to oversee terminals at six major U.S. seaports, many reacted with surprise and horror. USA Today says the $6.8 billion ports deal is just the latest example of a decades-long trend in which foreign interests have become heavily involved in U.S. institutions the government now considers targets for terrorism – from seaports to utilities and railways. At the massive Port of Los Angeles, 80 percent of the terminals are run by foreign firms. The United Arab Emirates was a base of operations for two 9/11 hijackers.
Port security specialists say much of this week’s political rhetoric focused on the wrong questions. Experts say that politicians should focus on gaps in port-security programs that have left the global shipping system and the nation’s 360 ports vulnerable to terrorism. The vulnerabilities extend from companies that load cargo containers abroad and the inspection process at overseas ports, to the need to install radiation detectors at most U.S. ports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents inspect U.S.-bound goods at 42 of the world’s busiest foreign ports. The Homeland Security Department acknowledges that the chance a particular shipping container was inspected by a U.S. agent is less than 10 percent. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government imposed security requirements and programs at U.S. ports in response to heightened concerns that terrorists could try to smuggle weapons of mass destruction in cargo containers. However, the checks are spotty, and once containers arrive in the United States, they seldom are inspected. The government is working to install drive-through radiation detectors at all major ports so that trucks carrying offloaded containers can be checked for radiation on their way to the highway, but that program is just beginning.