- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

Since September 11, 2001, our nation has focused efforts on securing our homeland. However, America’s seaports are still among our most vulnerable targets.

And the recent decision to allow a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates to run the port terminals in six U.S. cities from New York to Miami, without careful review, has rightfully caused concern across the nation.

While the jury is still out on whether Congress should block the deal, the questions raised are troubling. On its face, the proposal doesn’t strike me as sound policy at this point in our nation’s history. Congress needs at least 45 days to sort out what it means for our national security.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and others claim we shouldn’t worry because federal agencies, not marine terminal operators, are responsible for security. Saying terminal operators aren’t involved in port security is like saying American Airlines has nothing to do with aircraft security.

Marine terminal operators schedule the traffic in and out of terminals. They load and unload cargo.

If Customs or the Border Patrol wants to inspect a cargo container, they work with the terminal operator to make the container available. They hire security guards and manage the technology that protects the terminals. This makes the terminal operator an integral component in port security and subjects their operation to legitimate scrutiny.

As James Fox, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said in a letter to me, “To make a statement that the terminals do not play a role in the security checks and balances at the terminal is off-base.”

Terrorist infiltration of a terminal operating company could jeopardize thousands of lives and wreak havoc on our economy. The administration and Congress need time to scrutinize this deal and determine the threat — if any — the sale would incur.

It is true the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been a helpful ally in the War on Terror and we are grateful they allow American and coalition ships to use their ports. However, we also need to understand they’ve been a problem in the past.

UAE had direct ties to terrorists and the groups that sponsor them. In fact, according to the September 11 Commission report, an emir from the UAE helped thwart an operation aimed at killing Osama bin Laden two years before the September 11, 2001, attacks. UAE has also served as a willing conduit of money directed to finance terrorist front-groups and operations. They also were one of three nations to recognize the repressive and brutal Taliban regime.

This controversy can and should be used to improve port security. Only 5 percent of ship containers are currently inspected before reaching American waters. However, the private sector has promising technology using X-ray equipment and screening for nuclear material that could lead to inspecting virtually 100 percent.

This inspection, at the point of origin, would add only about $20 shipping costs to scan every container. The federal government would then need to set up a system to review the scanned images to search for contraband weapons or nuclear materials. I hope the Bush administration embraces a 100 percent inspection policy regardless of any additional fee required and regardless of the outcome of the UAE deal.

This transaction has also raised serious concerns about the process we use to approve foreign acquisitions. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) was created to examine the effect of foreign acquisitions of U.S. companies or infrastructure which could affect our national security. It empowers the president to block any transactions that could pose a risk to the security of our nation.

Unfortunately, CFIUS has not operated as designed. A September 2005 study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded the Treasury Department — which chairs the committee panel — narrowly defines what constitutes a national security threat. The Defense, Homeland Security and Justice Departments have all argued this narrow definition is not flexible enough to protect our national security needs. GAO also said the CFIUS panel has been reluctant to begin the longer, more thorough 45-day investigations because they may conflict with our nation’s open investment policy.

In the case of Dubai Ports World, CFIUS failed to fully review this acquisition. We have learned the president and his Cabinet were unaware of the deal until after the review was concluded. Clearly, this is not how a strategic acquisition should be approved. To this point, the transaction has raised more questions than answers.

Congress must take a critical look at this deal and the process that allowed us to get to this point. Until our questions and concerns are addressed, this deal must be put on hold.

Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, is a member of the U.S. Senate.

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