Remember the furor back in 2006 over the news that a Dubai-based company was going to buy a ship terminal operator in the United States?

Remember how all of a sudden many Americans decided against letting a foreign company operate cargo terminals inside the US, despite the fact that the same terminals were already being operated by a foreign corporation? (P&O Ports, UK)

Remember how nobody, including Congress, wanted to take a second and actually investigate what risks there were, if any, given that this purchase would not have changed the fact that the US Coast Guard would have remained in charge of Port Security and that US Customs would still have retained full control of inspecting incoming ships and cargo?

Nobody, especially Congress, bothered to look at any possible benefits this purchase could have brought to the US. This last issue is a shame, because there was a big intelligence benefit this purchase would have brought. An intelligence benefit that was sabotaged by our own Congress which was suffering from Dubai Port hysteria. (Over 30 bills were submitted to Congress over this issue.)

Instead of looking at the Dubai Ports World purchase as a threat, I saw it as a potential opportunity. Here was what I considered the best security reason for the approval of the attempted Dubai Ports World purchase of P&O Ports last year.

I suspect that the US also lost a huge intelligence treasure-trove. Everyone was running around, yelling about the possibility that someone might get access to something they should not see. Well that works both ways. What kind of intel might the US have gotten access to? Movement of cargo between two foreign ports making it easier to track WMD around the world? What would that have been worth?Why the UAE is so Important to the Navy and America

Dubai Ports World is a leader in shipping terminal operations. Part of the foundation of the company was built on their previous purchase of the American company CSX World Terminals, which at the time brought no security concerns whatsoever. But none of the facts mattered at the time this latest purchase was announced. Congress was out for blood, and their hatred of anything that President Bush approved of drove them to kill this deal, for no reason other than to overturn the White House on something. Anything. This combined with election hysteria, drove even Republican politicians to come out against this deal so as not to be accused of supporting this non-issue deal.

Only later did news bring confirmation that the Dubai Ports World purchase would have resulted in a potential treasure trove of intel data for the US:

Former Inside the Ring co-author Rowan Scarborough has written a new book revealing a key reason the Bush administration pressed hard for the 2006 deal for the United Arab Emirates-based Dubai Ports World to take over management of several U.S. ports.

According to Mr. Scarborough, the administration wanted the deal to go through because the UAE government had agreed to let the United States post agents inside its global port network who could report on world shipping.

Dubai Ports currently runs port facilities at key U.S. intelligence targets, including Venezuela, China, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia.

“Dubai Ports, in essence, was going to become an agent of CIA,” Mr. Scarborough said in an interview. “The arrangement is helping us detect whether any kind of terror contraband was being moved around.”

The management deal to run ports at New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans and Miami was initially approved by the Treasury Department-run Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, but was eventually scuttled in 2006 after pressure from Congress. Both Republicans and Democrats raised concerns that the deal would affect U.S. port security since al Qaeda had used UAE as a major financial base for its terrorist network. – Washington Times

Congress killed the deal because the uninformed opinion in the street was against this deal and Certain Congressmen harnessed that opinion to kill the deal.

Not for anything, but guessing the intel possibility was a no-brainer for those in the shipping industry. (Despite this, I did not want to mention anything until the deal had fallen through). So great job Congress for sticking their noses into an issue they had no understanding of and no desire to understand the issue. It was easier to just make it go away. Worse, Congress has access to confidential information that the public does not. It is their job to do what is best, not what is considered popular given the information that they have access to, not what the general public has access to.

Really, if Dubai Ports operating a couple cargo terminals was such a threat to America’s security, why has Congress done nothing about the following port threat example that I note below? (Originally reported here “Try this Port threat on for Size“)

So, how much of a threat do you rate the following in comparison to the Dubai Ports World hysteria?

Take this:

Put it on this (NSCSA = National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia):

Have it follow this route:

What can you get?

Here all these people are blabbing about what a threat it is for a UAE company to operate ports in the US. (Note: DPW has a number of Americans running it.) These same people have no clue that at the moment there are Saudi-Flag vessels, manned by Saudis carrying tens of thousands of containers into the US each year.

How valid a threat is this? Well according to this recent news story (Found at EagleSpeak) the Indians are very concerned:

Indian Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta Wednesday said terrorists may use shipping containers for the movement of nuclear weapons and called for augmented safety measures at ports.

“Container is the most likely means for the terrorist organisations for illegal transporting of nuclear weapons. Hence, the serious concerns about container security,” Mehta told reporters at a seminar on “Port Sector – Developments and Security”. – Hindustan Times

Sure, the US is implementing 100% container screening. But keep in mind that not all containers on containerships in US ports are destined for the US. Not only that, but not all cargo coming into the US arrives inside containers or even on ships for that matter. And there is no need to hide a WMD inside a cargo shipment. Terrorists just need to hide the weapon somewhere onboard the ship.

Posted just to give everyone something to think about.


Personal Note: I an headed off to Finland for a couple weeks vacation. So I will not be around until the end of March and most likely will not be posting anything other than comments until vacation is over.


Posted by FFry in Maritime Security

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  • FOD Detector

    USNI: you own this.

    This is a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory that’s bubbled around your more whacky rightwing blogs for about two years. It’s based on Rowan Scarborough’s book Sabotage: America’s Enemies within the CIA.

    The book’s thesis is the CIA was actively working to undermine the goals and agenda of the Bush administration. The DPW deal was supposedly one example, of many, of the “rogue” CIA undermining Bush policies to the supposed detriment of the nation. According to Scarborough, the new CIA head–Porter Goss–had great ideas which the large liberal cabal within the CIA sought to defeat. Goss was further hampered by John Negroponte who wanted to usurp the CIA for his own intelligence czar agenda.

    I weep for the reputation of the USNI..

  • Byron

    Personally, I don’t find it hard to believe that a conex full of nasty stuff could make it’s way to our shores, given the number of Chinese that have made it here via conex. Then again, I’m not as smart nor as sophisticated as some folks here.

  • FOD, the CIA would have been a beneficiary of this program, why would they have tried to kill this deal?

    Not for anything, but I did not suggest this. My point is that this deal was killed off due to irrational hysteria. I doubt any politician was initially interested in interfering with this business activity until their uninformed constituents started complaining to them about the deal. At that point, this turned into a political hot potato which the 30+ congressional bills submitted demonstrate.

    Where is the conspiracy? Democrats openly fought President Bush’s plans. This had nothing to do with port security. As I note, there are bigger threats in the industry that don’t bring anywhere near the amount of attention that this issue did.

  • I concur with Fred, Byron, the Indians and most level-headed security analysts that the most likely route of terrorism-related materials is on the sea. As to whether someone in the CIA was actively trying to “sabotage” White House priorities or policies, I think I’ll save that discussion for another forum.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    The “irrational hysteria” over Dubai Ports was deliberately brought about by fear-mongering reporting in the news media, framing what was innocuous enough into something that was egregious and unacceptable to main stream America, who seem to have neither the time or interest to fully inform themselves, not that the MSM does anything except make that task more difficult.

  • Hmmm….I guess it’s OK for Gazprom to buy up all our natural gas infrastructure, then? Hmm? There’s a line here somewhere, and DPW thing was, if not beyond it, riiight up against it.

    The fracas paid dividends elsewhere, too. A lot of deals got a lot more scrutiny after all the uproar. To me, that’s a win.

    I concur with FOD about the substance of this matter.

    (And, you know, just as a fun aside, anybody who uses the Hindustan Times/or public statements from Indian officials regarding Indian vulnerability does so at their own peril, too!)

  • Byron

    YS, don’t think I made it clear: I very much agree it’s a likely avenue. Thousands of miles of open shoreline, lots of ports large and small, and venal people willing to sell out their nation. Kinda scary.

  • Springbored,

    “I guess it’s OK for Gazprom to buy up all our natural gas infrastructure, then?”
    – Sure why not. What are they going to do with it inside the US? the company would need to operate under US rules. Not only that, it would be operated by Americans. As for depending on Gazprom-controlled NG infrastructure outside the US, that’s another story.
    – How about letting Venezuela own gasoline refineries in the US? Oh wait, they already do. Not only that, but the owner/Government actively threatens to cut off supply.

    There was no risk in letting Dubai Ports World operate cargo terminals in the US. NONE. They do not control the cargo arriving at the terminal from shore or from sea. They only facilitate the movement of cargo from one mode of transport to another. They do not release incoming cargo. First Customs releasing it to the control of the shipping company who releases the cargo to truckers or whatever for onward carriage to the final customer. All of this done by American employees who would not become threats simply because the ultimate owner is a foreign entity.

    While this incident might have brought additional scrutiny to other deals, the killing of this deal was still completely unjustified. In the process a good source of intelligence was sacrificed.

  • ExLT

    Let us remember that on the ground intel has been and always will be an amorphous danger. The door swings both ways. Would giving the UAE a potential tresure trove of intel on our ports have been the right thing to do? Most people thought not.If the CIA countermanded the Prez, it would not be the first time. The real world is not framed by black and white political “solutions.” Say nothing, deny everything, make counter accusations.

  • ExL T,

    The information at issue here is the contents of containers, shippers and consignees. I am not sure what benefit this would be for the UAE, especially when they would have access to this information anyway as long as they operated the terminals on the other end in the foreign ports. The benefit to the US was getting information on cargo shipments and relevant parties going between two foreign ports.