The actual security implications of the takeover of P&O by Dubai Ports World seem to be negligible.

Don’t you hate it when reality gets in the way of a really good issue?

A letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun, published February 18:

Port Administration runs region’s port

The Sun’s headline “UAE firm to run 6 U.S. ports” (Feb. 12) is misleading with regard to the purchase of a British company, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., commonly referred to as P&O Ports, which did become the property of Dubai Ports World (DPW) of the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 13.

The story states that P&O “runs Baltimore’s public terminals.” That’s not true.

P&O Ports is a stevedoring company that has competitively bid contracts with the Maryland Port Commission to perform certain duties at its public terminals in the port of Baltimore.

A stevedore company is one that hires longshoremen to load and unload cargo from ships.

Therefore, that corporate transaction means that UAE’s Dubai Ports World will be the firm bidding competitively for contracts to handle the containers and other cargoes coming off or loading on to ships in the six ports where P&O Ports has contracts. Baltimore is one of these ports.

The Maryland Port Administration will continue to “run” the port of Baltimore’s public terminals and be the spokesman for the port in general.

The private terminal operators will continue to run their terminals.

Helen Delich Bentley


Now I wouldn’t, in general, believe Helen Delich Bentley if she said the sky was blue. In addition to her generally reactionary record in Congress, she had a special role in persuading the Bush the First administration to side with MiloŇ°ević against the provinces that wanted to break away from Yugoslavia, and never, to my knowledge, spoke out against ethnic cleansing as long as it was Serbs doing the job.

While Bentley was covering the Port of Baltimore for the Baltimore Sun she was also, by her own account, a “Public Relations Counsellor with the American Association of Port Authorities.” She’s now in business as, among other things, a lobbyist for various defense and shipping interests. So I have every confidence that she’d lie in general, and lie for Bush in particular.

But on this sort of technical question, it’s overwhelmingly likely that she knows precisely what she’s talking about, and wouldn’t want to get caught talking through her hat. She was a reporter by trade, covering the port for the Sun for more than a decade, eventually as Maritime Editor, and then ran the Federal Maritime Administration under Nixon.

And assuming she’s right &#8212 which I do until someone shows me otherwise &#8212 the question of who gets to negotiate the ILU contracts at six ports hardly rises to the level of a national-security crisis.

Of course the fact that the P&O deal won’t actually put Osama bin Laden in charge of port security in the U.S. doesn’t change the fact that the approval of the deal seems to have involved the Bush Administration’s usual mix of cronyism, incompetence, arrogance, and contempt for legally-mandated process. And I’m having a good laugh watching the Bushies try to explain that the UAE, one of the three governments in the world to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, are really good guys. (And no, of course worrying about an Arab government’s control over U.S. security isn’t even vaguely like “racial profiling.”)

And of course there’s poetic justice here. However unimportant this issue is in security terms, it can’t possibly be less important than the question of personnel policy within the Department of Homeland Security that Bush, Rove & Co. manage to spin into political gold in 2002. They managed to convince voters that Democrats such as Max Cleland who wanted to protect federal civil servants against arbitrary firing “lacked the courage to lead” and were therefore soft on terrorism. (Of course, we all know how well the actual DHS management, with the amplified personnel powers Bush insisted on, has performed. Ask anyone in New Orleans.)

Still, while I’m delighted to watch this deal blow up in GWB’s face, it seems to me important to distinguish between good, clean political fun and genuine national-security concerns, such as the Administration’s massive failure to deal with port security nationwide. And if a fuss it to be made about the Bush Administration’s (and the Bush family’s) excessive coziness with Arab tyrants, the issue there isn’t the UAE; the issue (as Michael Moore tried to point out) is Saudi Arabia.

Update Clark Kent Ervin, until recently the Inspector General of DHS, disagrees. He claims that port operators supervise security. …the Coast Guard merely sets standards that ports are to follow and reviews their security plans. Meeting those standards each day is the job of the port operators: they are responsible for hiring security officers, guarding the cargo and overseeing its unloading.

This seems like a simple enough factual question, one that a competent reporter could answer in a day of phone calls and a morning on site. Don’t hold your breath.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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