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Serious About Port Security?

A House-Senate conference committee is negotiating the final language of the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act. A key provision in the version of the bill passed by the Senate is the requirement that dock workers convicted of murder, treason, espionage and terror related crimes be barred from working at the Nation's ports, and that workers convicted of crimes such as bribery, identify fraud and illegal use of firearms within the last seven years be barred as well. But did it make it into the final version of the bill?

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Philip SpaydEarlier this year the media and politicians from both side of the isle were apoplectic over the sale of P&O Ports to Dubai World Ports.  The operations of six US ports were being turned over to DWP, an instrument of the government of Dubai.  The Nation faces grave threats to its security from the potential for an attack launched through a container containing a weapon of mass destruction entering undetected through one of our ports.  It was inconceivable that we would turn over the operation of six major ports to a foreign government, much less to an Arab nation.  Immediate and dramatic action had to be taken to stop this clear threat to our National safety and security from taking place. Ultimately DPW had to pull back from the P&O purchase, and the Nation was safer because of the fast action of our political leaders and the widespread coverage in the national media of the issues.

Fast forward to September 30, 2006.  A House-Senate conference committee is negotiating the final language of the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act.  A key provision in the version of the bill passed by the Senate is the requirement that dock workers convicted of murder, treason, espionage and terror related crimes be barred from working at the Nation’s ports, and that workers convicted of crimes such as bribery, identify fraud and illegal use of firearms within the last seven years be barred as well. Just as the DPW purchase posed as a clear and present threat to port security, the presence of workers with serious criminal histories similarly poses a security threat.  These are the people who operate the cranes that unload the vessels; who drive the straddle carriers, yard tractors and fork lifts in moving containers off the vessel and into the yard; and who make decisions about where containers are stored.  They know intimately the operations of the terminal—how to hide containers, how to gain access to them, how to get them off the port.

But the Senate provisions never made it into the final version of the bill.  The seven year prohibition barring employment of persons convicted of the “lesser” crimes of murder, extortion, identity fraud and others was dropped from the bill. 

Included only was the barring of dock workers convicted of treason, espionage and terrorist-related crimes. The lesser crimes were apparently deemed unrelated to port security and not worthy of consideration in assessing the risk an employee with convictions for these crimes might pose to the security of the port.

A reasonable person would suppose that there would be a fierce and immediate reaction among political leaders to the actions of the conference committee that would be widely covered in the media, disclosing these actions which potentially pose a threat to port security.  Just as we could not countenance the operation of the port terminals by a foreign nation, we could not allow workers with serious felony convictions to unload and handle containers within the port.  But there was an odd silence when this security provision was removed from the final bill.  There were no indignant speeches and no coverage in the national media.  There were passing references to port security legislation in the national media, but no mention of the shallow security provisions covering port workers in the final legislation.  Writing in the on line edition of the October 2nd Wall Street Journal, John Fund covered these issues in detail. Other than that, one had to delve into the blogosphere for coverage.

One might think we are not really serious about port security.

In retrospect, most of the key facts regarding the DPW were incorrectly reported.  The ports were not to be turned over to either DPW or a foreign government, only the management of the terminals.  Security remained the responsibility of the federal government and the ports authority, and the framework for security exists independently of the ownership of the terminal. Moreover, through negotiations with DPW, the US government had the opportunity to negotiate additional security requirements for its operations both in the US and its other ports, thereby extending its influence at port operations over which it has no control and gaining valuable information about port security at the non US ports. Working with DPW, a state owned firm, had the collateral benefit of aligning the interests of the Dubai government with US security and commercial interests. Hence, in hindsight, the collapse of DPW’s purchase of P&O was a net decline in international port security.

Why would it be important to bar, or at least know, the criminal histories of the workers at our Nation’s ports? The simple answer is that all our security systems, all the security layers and internal controls, can be thwarted in the face of corruption.  No system can ultimately thwart the subversion of the system by people who operate as part of and within the system.  We talk a great deal about risk management in port and supply chain security.  Not all risks can be managed, nor are all risks of equal importance.  Is it not logical to assume that a port employee who has been convicted of a serious crime is a greater threat than an employee who has had no previous criminal activity and that, if not barred from employment, the employee with the criminal history should at least be restricted from working in sensitive areas?

In 1998, I worked as the US government advisor to the government of Bulgaria on counter proliferation policy.  I worked directly in the Interior Ministry, and traveled widely through the country and observed and analyzed port operations. The land border crossing of Kapitan-Andreevo is on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, and nearly all commercial truck traffic between the Middle East and Europe passes through this crossing.  It was, in my view, the most strategic land border crossing port in post cold war Europe.  Working at the port I observed a number of late model BMW and Mercedes automobiles in a parking area.  I noted that automobiles waiting for export should be stored in a secure area.  Later I found out that the automobiles were actually owned by customs employees at the port—employees who earned about $50 per month.

At a late evening session after dinner while sipping rakiya with local managers, the situation was explained to me.  It was true that the local customs officers accepted money to facilitate the movement of trade across the border.  They were not criminals, but were honest employees who were only subsidizing their otherwise meager salaries.  They would never do anything to harm the national Bulgarian interests or to let harmful products pass through their country. Their transgressions had nothing to do with terrorism or serious criminal activity. It is of course a preposterous theory. I believe that Kapitan-Andreevo continues to pose a threat to the security of Europe and the US.

We hear a variation of this theme in the opposition to criminal background checks for port workers.  True, some may have criminal records, but only those with convictions directly related to national security issues should be barred from employment.  Other criminal convictions have no bearing on an employee’s propensity to commit crimes that could harm the Nation’s security.  The employees with the history of felonies are, like the Bulgarian customs officers, apparently very selective in the crimes they commit, and would do nothing to jeopardize port or national security.

People convicted of crimes who serve their sentences and return to the community should have the opportunity to move ahead with their lives.   But at a time when the Nation’s security is under constant threat from attack by terrorists, and where ports and ocean containers are considered to be a high risk as the conduit for attack, possibly using a WMD, we need to take prudent action to ensure that the people working in the sensitive port areas do not have histories of convictions for serious crimes.  To allow people with histories of serious criminal conduct to work at the terminal unloading and moving containers would be an indication that we are not serious about port security. 

About Philip Spayd:
Prior to joining Global Trade Systems in January, 2004, Mr. Spayd served for twenty five years with the US Customs Service and Department of Homeland Security, working in the US and representing US Customs globally. He was a founding director of Operations Safe Commerce, the first public-private partnership to develop mechanisms to enhance the security of international supply chains. Mr. Spayd was awarded the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT) Annual Person of the Year Award for his contributions to the facilitation of international trade in New England.

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