Dubai, or Not Dubai?

The Grinch said it best: "Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!"

The controversy over shifting the management of some U.S. and Canadian ports to Dubai Ports, a company controlled in part by the government of the United Arab Emirates, has generated plenty of sound and fury. Republicans shouting at republicans. Port authorities threatening to block out potential tenants. Mayors and governors shouting at the president. Veto threats. Veto override threats. Hillary Clinton and Bill Frist on the same team! Depending on whom you ask, the deal is either a national security risk or business as usual. Scuttling the deal is either prudent patriotism or rank racism. Let's be honest: Most of us have no clue at all what to think, and the more information and invective that's shouted back and forth, the more politicized it gets, the less likely we'll be able to form a cogent opinion.

Ostensibly, all this noise is about security. So let's ask someone who, you know, works in that field. Graham Kee is the director of security for the Vancouver Port Authority. Centerm is a container and break bulk cargo facility within the port. It's operated by P&O Ports Canada, and it is part of the Dubai Ports deal. Kee's reaction to the noise is remarkably, refreshingly quiet. "We've approved assignment of that lease," he says, and then stops talking. Silence.

What does he make of the political maelstrom? "People reacted without the proper knowledge," he says and, again stops talking. More silence.

The question of whether this particular company should gain a role in U.S. and Canadian ports isn't terribly relevant, Kee eventually says. The questions people should be asking if they are truly concerned about security and not just political grandstanding are: What processes ensure that this, or any port deal, is safe? How do we know we can trust anyone who gains access to ports?

And for those kinds of questions, Kee completely mutes the noise: "Look, it doesn't matter if it's someone from another country or within Canada trying to manage the port. We want to make sure we have a reputable company. We want to make sure they are financially viable and meet our security standards. As for security in the terminal, the labor force doesn't change; the people who ship don't change; the import-export function doesn't change. The fact that the terminal must do a yearly vulnerability assessment doesn't change. The fact that Transport Canada approves that vulnerability assessment doesn't change. The fact that a security plan has to be prepared on an annual basis and it also has to be approved by the government doesn't change. The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and local law enforcement still police the ports.

"So I don't really see much change other than who sends out the bills," Kee says, and then stops again. Long silence.

But the issue remains tricky. On the one hand, most security experts chalk up the Dubai deal to the proverbial tempest in a teapot. On the other hand, to a man, they acknowledge that port security is wanting, perhaps the most wanting of the critical infrastructures when it comes to security. Kee himself says, "I think supply chain needs some work." George Naccara, the head of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in Boston, acknowledges that more needs to be done with cargo security. (Read Customs Rattles the Supply Chain to see what that might be.) And security expert and former member of the Coast Guard Stephen Flynn said that port security is "still a house of cards" and is using this current flap to raise the topic in places like ABC News and The New York Times.

These experts are at once trying to say, "the deal is fine" and also "ports are not." Their challenge, unmet so far, is to raise the important issues about screening more containers; about tightening up ship inspections; and about following through on best practices at the portswithout raising general hysteria.

In the meantime, Kee is exchanging information with security leaders at other ports and says, "We're all on the same page." He says he didn't think this deal would get so politically charged, but once he saw what was happening, "I knew it would come up in the House of Commons, probably today." Will it get as bad in Canada as it has here? "To tell you the truth, they'll have a lot more knowledge with which to debate it," he says. "We've been talking back and forth quite a bit."

Good for Canada. All that's going back and forth down here is a bunch of noise.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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