This week’s hubbub diverts attention from a pressing and genuine debate over what those agencies really need to do to keep our commercial harbors safe. Compared to airport security, port security is woefully underfunded and undeveloped.
A paper written by former Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen E. Flynn in the current issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review calls the system a “house of cards.” Flynn argues that any terrorist worth his salt could simply seek out a well-known “trusted” shipper’s containers to stash his deadly contraband. He calls for a slate of inspection-oriented reforms, including the adoption of better screening technologies.
Who owns the companies that operate the ports isn’t the point â€” it’s how those companies work together with federal and local authorities to keep ports safe. And the Department of Homeland Security has a long way to go before it figures out how best to get that done.
I still think there are some security issues that need to be examined more closely with the Dubai deal, such as building safeguards against insider threats – but otherwise, this editorial is spot-on.
Update (2/23): On a related note, this sentence from an NYT story in Thursday’s paper stood out (emphasis mine):
But Mr. Seymour, head of the subsidiary now running the operations, says only one of the six ports whose fate is being debated so fiercely is equipped with a working radiation-detection system that every cargo container must pass through.
Closing that gaping hole is the federal government’s responsibility, he noted, and is not affected by whether the United Arab Emirates or anyone else takes over the terminals.
Update 2 (2/23): Similar comments from USA Today’s editorial page:
The uproar in Congress does raise one useful question: What is the government doing to secure ports? The major threat is that a terrorist could smuggle a radioactive “dirty bomb,” nuclear device or another weapon of mass destruction in one of millions of cargo containers that land on U.S. docks each year. If lawmakers want to prevent that, here are a few real concerns they’ve been ignoring:
â€¢ Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has issued more than a dozen reports since 9/11 revealing huge gaps in just about every shipping security program the government runs.
â€¢ A program to inspect high-risk, U.S.-bound containers at foreign ports misses many of its targets; others get inspected but not very effectively, the GAO found.
â€¢ An effort to issue federal identification cards to more than 5 million transportation workers has barely started. The Transportation Security Administration has issued just 4,000 “prototype” cards so far.
â€¢ Radiation sensors deployed in some foreign ports are not “capable of detecting a nuclear weapon or a lightly-shielded dirty bomb,” according to security expert Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yes, Congress is welcome to take a hard look, unvarnished by political gamesmanship, at the involvement of Dubai Ports World in a sensitive industry. But it could do far more for security by working to fix the broad vulnerabilities in shipping.
Both tasks would be easier if lawmakers got down to business, instead of tripping over each other on the way to the cameras.