The Dubai Ports World episode is now fading into history, more than three weeks after it ended with a whimper, when DPW announced that it would sell off P&O’s US-based assets. In the early days of the controversy, I wrote that I hoped that this story would turn the nation’s attention to the broader, critical issues of port security. As the story developed, the focus of media and political attention began to shift to the need to respond broadly to the challenges of port security, a point driven home in a number of excellent editorials. The issue was featured prominently on the nightly news shows and 60 Minutes.
In the three weeks since the controvery has subsided, the nation’s attention has begun to shift elsewhere. Consider this chart, which tracks unique hits on a weekly basis for the phrase “port security” on Factiva for the period from January 1 of this year to the present:
After the mid-February spike in attention to port security, the media’s attention began a rapid decline, settling at a level in the last two weeks that is still 3-4x greater than the pre-DPW average, but a small fraction of the media attention during the story’s limelight.
At the same time, there has been a lot of very positive activity on the broad issues of port and cargo security in the last 2-3 weeks. Sen. Norm Coleman held two hearings in the Senate last week on port and cargo security, and his committee staff released an outstanding report that summarizes the key challenges of supply chain security. This week, the Senate and House are each holding hearings on companion pieces of legislation, the Senate’s GreenLane Maritime Cargo Security Act and the House’s SAFE Ports Act. These two nearly-identical bills would help prod DHS into taking a more strategic focus on this issue and would authorize over $800 million/year of new funding for key port and cargo security needs. Meanwhile, Sec. Chertoff clarified the Department’s vision for the Secure Freight Initiative (announced last July) in a speech in Singapore last Wednesday and toured the much-heralded Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS) in Hong Kong on Saturday. And DHS announced plans last Thursday to rapidly move forward on the long-delayed Transportation Worker Identification Credentialing (TWIC) program.
All of these activities make me hopeful about the prospects of real progress on port security. But I’m also wary about the roadblocks and challenges ahead. The cargo security bills probably have solid majority support in both houses of Congress today, but there’s a risk that they could fall prey to committee rivalries, squabbles over minutiae, or get lost in the shuffle of a very compressed and election-focused legislative calendar this year. Even if new funds are authorized, the budget and appropriations outlook for these activities is uncertain. And while DHS is focused right now on port and cargo security, there are risks that their attention will shift back to other concerns (e.g. border security, hurricane preparedness) before they’ve addressed the issues, and risks that they won’t have the resources to make the necessary investments. On that note, the departure of Elaine Dezenski, one of DHS’s most knowledgeable people on port and cargo security, is perhaps a troubling sign.
The most important determinant of whether the DPW episode delivers lasting, positive improvements to port security is likely to be continued public interest in these issues. The DPW controversy got tens of millions of people riled up over the prospect of foreign control of the nation’s ports; can that energy be channeled toward real improvements to the system? Or will the American public move on? In the absence of sustained public interest and concern, there’s a risk that we will slip back toward the pre-DPW reality of inertia, incomplete measures, and inadequate funding. That would be a bad outcome for our nation’s homeland security.