TRUDY RUBIN Real threat to ports in America isn't Dubai

So how many of you were port experts before the Dubai port story exploded?
Not many, I'd guess. I certainly wasn't. But lots of Americans have heard about the danger that a dirty bomb might arrive at their local terminal in a shipping container. No wonder so many people across political lines went ballistic when they heard that a company owned by an Arab state, from which two Sept. 11 hijackers had come, was taking over operations at six U.S. ports. They had little reason to trust the White House when it said everything was fine.
The irony of this tale is that there is a real threat to port safety, but it isn't Dubai Ports World. If Americans understood the real port threat, they'd be a lot angrier than they were last week.
While we've been "fighting them over there," port security has been sidetracked. Last year, the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security identified 66 of the nation's 359 ports as especially vulnerable to terrorist attack, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The port-safety issue was raised in the 2004 presidential election, but faded. The U.S. government has assigned $18 billion to make airports safer since Sept. 11, and just $630 million to protect ports. And the system we've set up to decide which shipping containers might be dangerous -- says one of the country's top experts on port security, Stephen Flynn -- is little more than a "house of cards."
Reputable company
None of this has much to do with Dubai Ports World, a reputable company based in the United Arab Emirates. The firm just acquired a British shipping firm, and has taken over its contracts to manage terminals in six U.S. ports. "If I had to rank from one to 10 the things I'm most worried about about port security," Flynn told The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, "I put this near the bottom ... ."
DP World wouldn't own the ports; it would supervise the movement of containers on and off ships. (In fact, most U.S. shipping terminals are already managed by foreign companies.) The port workers would be U.S. longshoremen.
As for port security, the overall responsibility lies with the Coast Guard and the new Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP). But the holes in that security system should make you sleepless, especially if you live near a port.
Only around 6 percent of the 6 million shipping containers that arrive annually are inspected. The problem is how to figure out which containers are at risk, which might have had a dirty bomb inserted en route, say, from Russia to Istanbul to Rotterdam to New York City.
Should such a bomb explode, says maritime security expert Carl Benzel, it could shut down the country's ports and smash the 30 percent of the U.S. economy that relies on retail trade. Yet the system to prevent this from happening is rickety.
CBP decides, based on advance shipping manifests and intelligence, which containers to target. Customs inspectors may travel to foreign ports to inspect suspect containers. The Energy Department finances some radiation sensors at foreign ports. It's all piecemeal.
"Commerce doesn't have enough resources to assure adequate screening," says David Heyman, homeland security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "and the Coast Guard is stretched thin." Radiation equipment often doesn't work. Different agencies pursue their own agendas.
New attention
But the DP World flap may finally give the issue of port security the attention it deserves.
The Dubai company now says it will postpone taking control of its new U.S. operations. This should give the Bush administration time to provide Congress with the security assurances it should have offered much earlier. The White House should also clarify whether its tone-deaf approach was affected by the fact that Treasury Secretary John Snow formerly chaired the CSX rail firm that sold its port operations to -- DP World.
The shipping firm could then offer to work with U.S. customs officials to design new safety procedures for U.S. and foreign terminals. Indeed, Dubai was first in the Mideast to introduce U.S. procedures to prescreen U.S.-bound cargo.
The spotlight is on the Bush team to show whether they want to make ports safer. The problem with port safety doesn't lie with Dubai, but closer to home.
X Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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