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Calmer voices drowned out by rhetoric

Calmer voic­es drowned out by rhetoric
By Andrew Ward in Atlanta and Stephanie Kirch­gaess­ner and Edward Alden in Wash­ing­ton
Pub­lished: Feb­ru­ary 22 2006 19:02 | Last updat­ed: Feb­ru­ary 22 2006 19:02

Stand­ing beneath tow­er­ing cranes and rows of stacked con­tain­ers on the docks of the Port of Mia­mi, it is easy to see why the city should be con­cerned about mar­itime secu­ri­ty.

The port is locat­ed on an island in Bis­cayne Bay just a few hun­dred metres from the gleam­ing blue-glass sky­scrap­ers of Miami’s finan­cial dis­trict and the apart­ment blocks of fash­ion­able South Beach.

If ter­ror­ists want­ed to smug­gle a dirty bomb through a US port direct­ly into a large and impor­tant pop­u­la­tion cen­tre, Mia­mi would be the ide­al can­di­date.

Until this week, how­ev­er, nobody seemed wor­ried about the two for­eign-con­trolled ter­mi­nals that have been han­dling car­go at the port for years — one owned by Den­mark’s Maer­sk Group, the oth­er by UK-based P&O.

It was only after P&O share­hold­ers accept­ed a GBP 3.9bn ($6.8bn, EU 5.7bn) take-over by Dubai Ports World last week that peo­ple start­ed voic­ing alarm. On Tues­day, Man­ny Diaz, Miami’s may­or, wrote to Pres­i­dent George W. Bush express­ing “deep con­cern? that the deal could “jeop­ar­dise the secu­ri­ty of our city and our nation”.

The let­ter was part of nation­wide wave of protest against the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s approval of the DP World deal, which will give the Mid­dle East­ern com­pa­ny own­er­ship of P&O facil­i­ties at six US ports. Crit­ics fear the takeover will make ports more vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ror­ism, even though DP World is based in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, a US ally.

Amid the deaf­en­ing polit­i­cal rhetoric, how­ev­er, those who know most about port secu­ri­ty are strik­ing a more san­guine tone.

Robert Bon­ner, the for­mer US Cus­toms com­mis­sion­er who over­saw the tight­en­ing of port secu­ri­ty fol­low­ing the 2001 ter­ror­ist attacks, believes crit­ics have over-esti­mat­ed the influ­ence that ter­mi­nal oper­a­tors have over ports. “The secu­ri­ty con­cerns here are great­ly exag­ger­at­ed,” he says. “The respon­si­bil­i­ty for the eval­u­a­tion and inspec­tion of any­thing com­ing into the US is not the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the port own­er or the ter­mi­nal oper­a­tor. It’s the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

Con­trary to the impres­sion being giv­en by many politi­cians, DP World will not gain “con­trol” over any US ports. All of those affect­ed — New York, New Jer­sey, Bal­ti­more, Philadel­phia, New Orleans and Mia­mi — are owned by city or state author­i­ties.

P&O’s role is to man­age dock­side ter­mi­nals, usu­al­ly along­side rival oper­a­tors such as Maer­sk. This gives the com­pa­ny con­trol over the con­tain­ers that pass through its facil­i­ties but all car­go is sub­ject to secu­ri­ty checks by the US Coast Guard and Cus­toms.

Crit­ics fear that ter­ror­ists could infil­trate DP World and gain posi­tions of influ­ence inside ports. But Andrea Muniz, spokes­woman for the Port of Mia­mi, says that would be dif­fi­cult in her city because all dock work­ers, includ­ing those employed by ter­mi­nal oper­a­tors, are sub­ject to strin­gent back­ground checks by the port author­i­ty.

Chris Bonu­ra, spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, says the nation­al­i­ty of a ter­mi­nal own­er has lit­tle impact on oper­a­tions. “We don?t have lots of British peo­ple run­ning around our port just because P&O is here. Amer­i­cans run the ter­mi­nal and the labour is local and unionised. That would not change.”

Stew­art Bak­er, assis­tant sec­re­tary for pol­i­cy at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, says DP World has been an ally in efforts to improve port secu­ri­ty around the world and has agreed to deep­en the co-oper­a­tion as a con­di­tion of its takeover of P&O. “There are more safe­guards in this trans­ac­tion than in any past port trans­ac­tion,” he says.

Sup­port­ers of DP World dis­miss the oppo­si­tion as pop­ulist grand­stand­ing by politi­cians gear­ing up for midterm elec­tions. But Rob Bur­ton, direc­tor of Blue Water Part­ners, a secu­ri­ty con­sul­tan­cy, says some con­cern is mer­it­ed. “The Coast Guard and Cus­toms may have over­sight but, in real­i­ty, it is the peo­ple on the ground han­dling the car­go that have most effect on secu­ri­ty and that is usu­al­ly the ter­mi­nal oper­a­tors.”

Nobody dis­putes that port secu­ri­ty has improved since 2001. Radi­a­tion detec­tors and X‑ray machines have been intro­duced to most large ports; importers are required to pro­vide infor­ma­tion on incom­ing ship­ments at least 24 hours before arrival; and inter­na­tion­al agree­ments have been struck to increase inspec­tion of US-bound goods on for­eign soil.

Despite the improve­ment, only about 5 per cent of the 9m con­tain­ers that arrive in the US each year are inspect­ed and detec­tion devices are noto­ri­ous­ly unre­li­able. False alarms are some­times trig­gered by nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring radi­a­tion while more threat­en­ing mate­r­i­al encased in lead would go unno­ticed.

James Woolsey, for­mer direc­tor of the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency, says ports remain a weak spot in secu­ri­ty and deserve greater atten­tion because of their eco­nom­ic impor­tance in a world of glob­al, just-in-time sup­ply chains. “Our inter­na­tion­al trad­ing sys­tem has become so effi­cient it is like a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed Swiss watch,” he says. “It works fine as long as noth­ing dis­turbs its mech­a­nism. But a dirty bomb brought through the port of Los Ange­les could shut down whole indus­tries with­in days.”

Hen­ry Coop­er, a for­mer US arms con­trol nego­tia­tor and nuclear weapons expert, warns against becom­ing too fix­at­ed on ports. “Ter­ror­ists are unlike­ly to choose to send a dirty bomb through a major trans­port artery because that’s where the great­est risk of detec­tion and delay is,” he says. “They are more like­ly to use a recre­ation­al ves­sel through a mari­na or deliv­er a mis­sile from off­shore. Ter­ror­ists will choose the least pre­dictable route with the great­est flex­i­bil­i­ty and con­trol. Lock­ing a bomb in a con­tain­er does not fit those cri­te­ria.”


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