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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The port fiasco

I admit to feeling a little leery that a United Arab Emirates company is, through acquisition of a U.K. port operation company, going to operate several American ports. But I recognize what that feeling is: a stereotype, bias, unfairly targeting a company because it's located in a Muslim country, and many Muslims want to kill Americans.

After thinking about it for a while, I've come to this conclusion:

I'm more afraid of the New York Times compromising American port security than I'm afraid of a UAE company operating our ports.

The U.S. is not outsourcing our port security, just the port operations. The Coast Guard remains in charge of port security, regardless of whether the port is operated by a U.S., U.K., or UAE company. I have to assume the Coast Guard does not reveal the secret details of its security procedures to companies operating the ports. Thus, why should we think the company operating the port has any impact on the security of the port?

However, just imagine some editor of the New York Times discovering that the Coast Guard is doing special searches of ships with ports of call in certain Arab nations. Racism! Abuse of Muslims! To the presses! Who cares what top secret homeland security measures get revealed in the fallout?

I really think it's a bad idea for the U.S. government to deny operation of U.S. ports to foreign companies from only some countries. It sets a bad precedent. Should the German government deny an otherwise qualified U.S. company the right to operate the port of Warnemunde because they don't like our stance on capital punishment or the war in Iraq?

As I see it, as long as the U.K. and the UAE are treated the same by our trade agreements and other treaties, we shouldn't treat these companies differently.

Let's do a quick reality check. We know what we're ultimately afraid of: a weapon of mass destruction (biological or nerve agent, dirty bomb, or even a suitcase nuke) being brought to America's shores via our ports. Ask yourself: how will a group of terrorists be aided in such a plan by using a port operated by a UAE company, rather than a U.S. or U.K. company? And to the extent there would be an advantage, how does it compare to other elements of the plan (say, a friendly ship captain, a friendly home port to introduce the payload, or the aforementioned details of U.S. port security)? Would using a U.S. operated port necessarily prevent the plan from working?

The better approach is for the cities involved to quietly tell the UAE company that they will not be using the company's services after their contract is up. In other words, just another business decision.

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