Commentary by Carl Benzel on Dubai Ports World & U.S. Port Security

By MarEx 2008-04-02 00:00:00

"Dubai Debate Perfect Opportunity to Implement Technology to Increase Port Security"

Check the calendar. It's 2006, right? More than four years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Plenty of time for our nation to have learned a few things about homeland security.

Yet the best minds in Washington can't seem to agree whether turning management control of six U.S. ports over to a foreign government is a good idea, or not.

For those of us involved in maritime policymaking and security operations, it's disconcerting that most maritime shipping into the U.S. is run by international businesses. But Dubai World Ports is a reputable company that operates in 18 nations. They are also one of a few companies worldwide who could even handle this sort of business.

The larger concern is that Congress and the Administration won't treat this situation as the great opportunity it is to implement higher security standards, technology and programs to improve the current state of our port security ? a point that should not be lost in the media coverage or the public's consciousness of this issue.

Security in U.S. ports is severely lagging. Only 5 percent of marine cargo containers entering the U.S. ports from overseas are inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The government should greatly increase their interaction with the private sector to utilize technology that efficiently and thoroughly scans containers at their departure and arrival port to ensure they haven't been tampered with or altered in any fashion.

The U.S. Coast Guard focuses on waterside activities while Customs focuses on cargo entry, but neither has the funding to develop and implement a system to mirror TSA's for air travel.

Instead, they are forced to manage security through a matrix of local, state and federal law officers. Most Americans would be horrified to learn that the huge tankers and container ships using our waterways may not be monitored by a global positioning system because Coast Guard lacks the funding to actually receive the signal. While U.S. airports receive billions of dollars in federal assistance to implement security measures, U.S. ports receive less than $150 million annually.

The United States is the world's largest merchandise trading nation, with maritime shipping accounting for more than $800 billion of trade in 2003. More than 60 percent of the petroleum that our nation uses arrives via our system of ports.

Yet, without funding for improved security, we bear a potentially huge risk of terrorist attack by ship or marine container; the risk posed to our economy can hardly be envisioned.

The security practices at our nation's seaports sorely need updating. Congress and the Administration should conduct a thorough review in the context of the realities and shortcomings of our current system of port security.

Ultimately, maritime shipping is international in nature. The proposed deal with Dubai should be used constructively by U.S. policymakers to help introduce technology, resources and programs that will establish the framework for securing our maritime borders. It's 2006. It's time.

Carl Bentzel has over 14 years of policy and legislative experience in homeland and maritime security. He was instrumental in drafting and moving to passage the "Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA)," sponsored by Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC). Recently, he authored the port and maritime security section in The McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Handbook, a comprehensive guide to our nation's critical homeland security issues.