Port Deal Raises Serious Concerns

Judging by the recent statements of its top officials, the Bush administration intends to use the 45-day investigation period for the proposed Dubai Ports World transaction simply to let nerves calm and emotions cool in the hope that Congress and key state officials will then accept the deal. This perspective is unfortunate.

Real issues need to be addressed if a company owned and operated by the United Arab Emirates is to safely manage key operations at six U.S. ports. The opposition to the deal of former 9/11 commissioner Thomas H. Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, and at least one former official of the Department of Homeland Security should be reason enough to take the objections seriously on their substance, not just their politics.

Homeland security adviser Frances Townsend recently said on national television that there is no notable difference between a British firm running the port operations in question and a UAE firm doing so. This statement is meant to suggest that only xenophobia can explain the actions of those who oppose the deal.

Ms. Townsend should know better.

Leave aside what we clearly remember about the UAE’s behavior in the not-too-distant past: that it recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan, that it was the country of origin for two 9/11 hijackers and a nexus for much of the funding needed to organize that plot, and that the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan used UAE territory as a transshipment point for sensitive technologies.

Admittedly, these concerns are at least partially counterbalanced by the facts that the UAE has become a responsible player in port security on its own territory and that it has helped the United States substantially with intelligence cooperation and military bases in the war on terror.

But there is more to it.

In fact, existing policy draws a sharp distinction between close allies—allies such as Britain—and most of the world’s other countries when it comes to vigilance against possible terrorism. Most relevant is the visa waiver program. Citizens from European states and a few other close allies need not have visas when coming to the United States; everyone else must.

This suggests that we recognize that our close democratic partners, whatever their own foibles, have better procedures for monitoring the proper behavior of their citizens than most other countries and a better means of fixing problems that become apparent.

The policy also underscores the point that, however reputable UAE officials are, however trustworthy the DPW management team may be, however nonviolent most UAE citizens undoubtedly are, there are nonetheless far more al-Qaida members living in the Middle East than in most other parts of the world.

Recognizing this does not make anyone racist. It is simply a fact.

That means there is a serious case for drawing a distinction between ownership of port operations by a British, a Korean or even a Singaporean firm and one run by a company in the UAE. (Whether Chinese firms should run U.S. ports is another matter, but a largely separate one.)

There is also a serious case for legislation proposed by Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey to oppose foreign ownership of U.S. port operations, though this is a more drastic proposal and would require major changes to how things are done today.

The argument that DPW would not have responsibility for security operations at U.S. ports, which would remain in the hands of the Coast Guard and DHS, is partly right but incomplete.

Any firm managing cargo at such ports would necessarily know a great deal about the port, its shipping practices and its potential vulnerabilities. And even if DPW’s current management is, as I suspect, entirely dependable in not wishing to misuse any such information, what assurance do we have that future employees hired into its management team will be as trustworthy?

What to do?

If there is to be a useful compromise after 45 days, we need to begin by recognizing that it must have substantive elements. While much more needs to be done, I would suggest three broad areas for further investigation and brainstorming:

  • The UAE government should not own DPW. Rather, the UAE needs to help us monitor the company in the future. Part of what makes democracies more trustworthy than autocracies (even benign ones, like the UAE) in these kinds of affairs is the system of checks and balances. With government ownership of the company at present, no such checks and balances can occur except on the U.S. end.
  • We need to know more about intelligence-sharing between the two governments. While details must remain classified, the Bush administration must give unclassified reports to the public and hold more detailed private conversations with key members of Congress about what procedures can be instituted with the UAE so we can verify whatever checks it performs on its citizens who work for DPW. Perhaps much of this already happens, but as former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has pointed out, more transparency is needed.
  • To show its good faith and make a contribution toward greater port security globally, the UAE should propose ways to help other countries improve port security. Creating a center on best practices within the Arab world would be one idea. Supporting research on even better practices, such as smart containers with sophisticated seals and global positioning systems allowing for full-time tracking of their whereabouts, would be another. Helping pay for improved procedures at ports in countries with less means to improve security themselves would be a third.

The blowup over DPW, however regrettable in one way, can still be turned into an opportunity for better policy if we approach it correctly. But that will require a greater shift in thinking on the subject than the Bush administration has demonstrated to date.