- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

How would you feel if, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government had decided to contract out airport security to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the country where most of the operational planning and financing of the attacks occurred?

My guess is you, like most Americans, would think it a lunatic idea, one that could clear the way for still more terror in this country. You probably would want to know who on earth approved such a plan — and be determined to prevent it.

Of course, no such thing occurred after September 11. In fact, the job of keeping our planes and the flying public secure was deemed so important the government itself took it over from private contractors who were seen as not rigorous enough.

Now, however, 41/2 years later, a secretive government committee has decided to turn over management of six of the nation’s most important ports — in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore and New Orleans — to Dubai Ports World following the UAE company’s purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which previously had the contract.

This is not the first time this interagency panel — called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) — has made an astounding call about the transfer of control of strategically sensitive U.S. assets to questionable purchasers.

In fact, as of last summer, CFIUS had, since its creation in 1988, formally rejected only one of 1,530 transactions submitted for its review.

Such a record is hardly surprising given that the committee is chaired by the Treasury Department, whose institutional responsibilities include promoting foreign investment in the United States. Treasury has rarely seen a foreign purchase of American assets it did not like. And this bias on the part of the chairman of CFIUS has consistently skewed the results of the panel’s deliberations in favor of approving deals, even those opposed by other, more national security-minded departments.

Thanks to the secrecy with which CFIUS operates, it is not clear at this writing if any such objection was heard to the idea of contracting out managing six of our country’s most important ports to a UAE company. There would certainly appear to be a number of grounds for rejecting this initiative, however:

• America’s seaports have long been recognized by homeland security experts as among our most vulnerable targets. Huge quantities of cargo move through them every day, much of it of uncertain character and provenance, nearly all of it inadequately monitored. Matters can only be worsened by port managers who might conspire to bring in dangerous containers, or simply look the other way when they arrive.

• Entrusting information about key U.S. ports — including, presumably, government-approved plans for securing them — to say nothing of responsibility for controlling physical access to these facilities, to a country known to have been penetrated by terrorists is not just irresponsible. It is recklessly so.

• At the risk of being politically incorrect, the proposed new management will also complicate the job of assuring that the personnel working in these ports pose no threat to their operations — or to the rest of us. To the extent we must remain particularly vigilant about young male Arab nationals as potential terrorists, it makes no sense to provide legitimate grounds for such individuals to be in and around some of this country’s most important strategic assets.

• Of particular concern must be the implications for energy security as a very large proportion of the nation’s oil imports come through the Atlantic and Gulf State ports that the UAE company hopes to take over. For example, Philadelphia handles some 85 percent of the oil coming into the East Coast; New Orleans is responsible for a seventh of all our energy imports.

Given such considerations, how could even a stacked deck like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States find it possible to approve the Dubai Ports World’s transaction?

Could it have been influenced by the fact a former senior official of the UAE company, David Sanborn, was recently named the new administrator of the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration? Mr. Sanborn is former DP World director of operations for Europe and Latin America.

Or is it because the U.S. government views — and is determined to portray — the United Arab Emirates as a vital ally in this war for the Free World? A similar determination has long caused Washington to treat Saudi Arabia as a valued friend even as the Saudis play a double game, working simultaneously to repress terrorism at home and abet it abroad.

Whatever the explanation, the nation can simply no longer afford to have the disposition of strategic assets — including those with a military or homeland security dimension — determined by a Treasury-dominated panel in secret without congressional oversight.

Congress should see to it that the United Arab Emirates is not entrusted with the operation of any U.S. ports, and that the Treasury Department is stripped of the lead role in evaluating such dubious foreign investments in the United States.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and lead author of “War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.”

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