Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Congress Should Talk to the Experts

My biggest fear in the current brouhaha over DP World buying P&O Terminals isn't the government of the UAE.

My biggest fear is the U.S. Congress.

My fear is that Congress feels it has to Do Something. And that often equals Bad Legislation.

At best, we could be subject to another Commission, who will spend much taxpayer dollars, study the situation for a year, release their findings and recommendations--which will promptly be ignored, forgotten, or set aside if convenient--and, like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands of further responsibility.

"We did our duty. Now, let's see how much money we can gut from the U.S. Coast Guard."

In 2001, I was working for a steamship line. After 9/11, one of our favorite water cooler topics was "How Would We Have Done It Better?" We had the advantage in knowing the vulnerabilities of the system, of where the weak links were.

For its part, U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard have been trying to close those gaps. There is an entire program called Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (known as C-TPAT). There is the 24-Hour Rule, where steamship lines send a manifest to Customs 24 hours before the vessel arrives at the foreign port of loading. Once that manifest is transmitted, it is almost impossible to edit it.

INS, for their part, requires a complete list of crew members and passport information. Getting off the ship (not that ships are in port long anyway) is discouraged.

But spend $6 billion just to blow up a port terminal? I can think of a couple of ways to do damage for a lot less. Remember, the 9/11 hijackers didn't own the planes or the airport terminals. They had box cutters, available at any office supply or hardware store, and themselves.

If I were truly interested in port security, I'd take the yard superintendents, the walking bosses, the clerks, the truck drivers, transtainer and container crane operators out to the local dive and spring for beer. They can tell you where the security holes are and probably have some good ideas how to fix them. Chances are they've been talking about this since 9/11 as well.

And I'd increase the operating budget of the Coast Guard and Customs so they can do their job. Especially in the area of data mining the manifests to flag suspicious cargo. Customs needs a Chloe O'Brien and the computer power of CTU in 24. They don't have it.

But my suggestion doesn't provide much of a photo op.