March 2, 2006 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Port Security: The Administration Misses an Opportunity

The sale of a London-based firm that operates facilities at six major U.S. ports to a government-owned company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has raised national security concerns. Administration officials have failed to answer them. They have not done a good job explaining why Americans should worry about U.S. port security and what needs to be done to secure the maritime domain. Now that the Administration has Americans' attention on this issue, it needs address the heart of the matter.

The Administration's Case

From the start, U.S. officials have contended that they faithfully followed the process created by Congress to ensure that national security issues are addressed when foreign companies invest in the United States. In short, the officials argue that they performed the due diligence that Congress required of them. They have also explained that the UAE holding company, Dubai Ports World, is not buying U.S. ports or the right to oversee port security, but merely ownership of a company that operates some port facilities. This ownership provides Dubai Ports World no unique access or opportunities to make mischief because security requirements at the port would be the same for any company, foreign-owned or not. These points are true, but they ignore a broader truth. Concern about port security is reasonable. America's ports are vulnerable. Americans want to know why that is and what can be done to make U.S. ports safer.

 

The Truth About Port Security

The Administration has a number of programs already underway to secure U.S. ports. They will not make ports 100 percent secure. Ports are designed to move masses of things quickly, and that is a large part of what makes seaborne transport a bargain. Trying to turn a port into Fort Knox is a bad strategy that would undermine maritime trade. The best way to make a port safe is to keep bad things and bad people out of the port to begin with. That requires three initiatives:

 

  1. Fund the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is central to every aspect of maritime security at home and overseas, and yet its modernization program has been chronically underfunded. Its ships, planes, and sensors are old and outdated. Congress needs to shift spending from wasteful port security grants to real security by investing in the Coast Guard.
     
  2. Improve Public-Private Information Sharing. The U.S. government needs to focus its intelligence and law enforcement assets on the direst threats. That requires access to commercial information that helps it to understand the global supply chain. Right now, all of this information-whether concerning U.S. or foreign-owned ports and shipping-is not available in a usable format. The U.S. must require more and better data before cargo is loaded on ships bound for its ports.
     
  3. International Cooperation is Essential. The weakest links in the chain right now are not modern ports like in Los Angles, New York, Singapore, and Dubai, but ports and shippers in the developing world. A concerted international effort will be required to ensure that developing countries can meet global shipping and port security standards.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow