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Getting the Facts on the Port Security Fracas


The political uproar continued today over the planned takeover of some U.S. port operations by a firm from the United Arab Emirates. In the Democrat's Saturday radio address, New Jersey Governor John Corzine charged the Bush Administration with being casual about U.S. Security.

Dubai Ports World has agreed to postpone its takeover of U.S. seaport terminal operations from the British firm it has bought. Still, Senators from both parties are pushing legislation to require a national security review of the deal. Amid all the political rhetoric, it's been hard to get at the facts of this story. To help us sort things out, we turn now to NPR's Adam Davidson who's been following this story. Hello, Adam.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOT: We now know that many foreign firms indeed manage American ports. Can you give us a picture of what's going on at ports around the country?

DAVIDSON: Sure. There's about 12 to 15 major ports in the U.S. Each one has between three and ten or 12 terminals, those are subsets of a port. If you do the math, it's about 100 terminals that are operated in the U.S. About eight are operated by U.S. owned companies. Maybe a dozen or so are operated by local municipalities or states. So what that leaves is 80, 80 percent of U.S. terminals are operated by foreign owned companies.

ELLIOT: The Dubai Company is state owned and Senator Hillary Clinton and others have said that this makes it somehow different from the British firm that's being bought. Is it unusual for state owned companies to do business at strategic U.S. facilities?

DAVIDSON: It isn't. In addition to Dubai Ports World, several of the leading terminal operators are either owned by foreign governments or have very close ties to foreign government. There's two major Chinese companies that are not owned by the Chinese government, but their leadership is extremely closely interlinked with the Chinese government. Those companies have operations, for example, in Staten Island, in Long Beach, in Los Angeles. So it's very hard to understand where you draw the line as far as foreign ownership.

Also, a bigger concern that some have raised is air travel. Every day at airports all over the country, hundreds of airplanes coming in that are owned by foreign governments, the airline is owned by foreign governments. They take off from foreign owned and foreign controlled airports, foreign owned and foreign controlled security operations, and they come into the U.S. with no checks whatsoever, as opposed to the many checks that ships have by U.S. officials by the time they land.

So the question of where do you draw the line is a very hard one to ask and it's very hard to see how someone would just naturally conclude that Dubai Ports World, is on one side of that line and everything else is on the other.

ELLIOT: Would the Dubai owned company have anything to do with security at port terminals?

DAVIDSON: They will have terminal operations at six U.S. ports. At three of them, they do have a contract to manage some aspects of the security. One of their big tasks at those three will be to write a periodic security review to go over the security procedures. But that's not to say they're in charge of security. It's more like they're the first pass of security. But at every U.S. port the U.S. Coast Guard has full responsibility for the physical port itself. And the U.S. Customs has responsibility for the security related to the cargo. So there is not a port in the U.S. where anyone other than the U.S. government has responsibility finally for security.

ELLIOTT: Should President Bush have been informed of this sale? His political opponents are suggesting that he somehow dropped the ball on this by not following the sale and calling for a national security review.

DAVIDSON: You know, it's hard to see what in this deal would rise to the level of presidential scrutiny. There are, obviously, international companies buying and selling other international companies all the time. And it's hard to imagine a system in which the President of the United States should be kept up to date on the details of that. If this was a real threat to national security, that might change. But I have found one security expert who says this is a concern, but I have spoken to dozens. And everyone but one says there really is no security issue here.

So it is hard to see how someone in the administration would have thought, oh boy, the President really has to sign off on this.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think there is such an uproar over this, when the people who have the expertise in this area say this is not a real security threat?

DAVIDSON: That is a real confusion. I was so confused by it that I actually called most of the leading politicians who are critical of this sale. I called the offices Senator Schumer, Senator Clinton, Senator Frist, Senator Menendez, several House members. And I asked each one of them the same thing. I said I have not been able to find a single port security expert who agrees with you that this is a real concern. Can you please give me the name and contact information for a port security expert who agree with you?

None of them were willing to give me a name, except for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. His office gave me the names of two experts who they said agree with them that Dubai Ports World is a real security threat. I called both those experts and both of them said no, there's no security threat here. We're not at all concerned about the national security issues here.

I have to say that I cannot think of another story I have ever covered where what seem to be the facts are so far away from the public debate.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Adam Davidson, thank you.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Adam Davidson
Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.