Serious about port security?

Serious about port security?

Earlier this year, the media and politicians were apoplectic over the sale of P&O Ports to Dubai's DP World. Cries were raised that the deal would jeopardize national security. The story was front-page news until DP World announced that it would sell its newly acquired U.S. assets to an American buyer.

Fast-forward to Sept. 30, when a House-Senate conference committee was negotiating final language of the Security and Accountability for Every (SAFE) Port Act. A key provision in the bill's Senate version would bar employment to dockworkers convicted of murder, treason, espionage and terror-related crimes, and to workers convicted of crimes such as bribery, identity fraud and the illegal use of firearms within the last seven years.

The provision would have applied to the people who unload the vessels, move containers off ships 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 complex.

But the Senate provision never made it into law. The seven-year prohibition on employment of persons convicted of the "lesser" crimes of murder, extortion and identity fraud was dropped. The bill barred only dockworkers convicted of treason, espionage and terrorist-related crimes.

A reasonable person would suppose that there would be a fierce reaction. Instead, there was an odd silence. Except for a report in the Wall Street Journal's online edition on Oct. 2, one had to delve into the blogosphere for coverage of the shallow security provisions regarding port workers.

In retrospect, most of the key facts regarding the DP World sale were incorrectly reported by the general press. But the issues in the SAFE Port bill were clear-cut and real: Why would it be important to bar or at least know the criminal histories of port workers? The answer: Our security systems and internal controls can be thwarted in the face of corruption.

We talk about risk management in port and supply-chain security. 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 with no criminal record? And that, if not barred from employment, the employee with the criminal history should at least be restricted from sensitive areas?

In 1998, I worked as the U.S. government adviser to Bulgaria on counter-proliferation policy. I traveled widely through the country and observed and analyzed port operations. Nearly all truck traffic between the Middle East and Europe passes through the Kapitan-Andreevohe crossing on the Turkey-Bulgaria border. It was, in my view, the most strategic land border crossing in post-Cold War Europe.

Working at the port, I observed a number of late-model BMWs and Mercedes, and noted that automobiles waiting for export should be stored in a secure area. Later I learned that the cars were actually owned by customs employees - who earned about $50 per month.

While sipping rakiya after dinner with local managers, the situation was explained to me. It was true that the local customs officers accepted money to facilitate cross-border movements. They were not criminals, I was told, but were honest employees merely 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-Andreevohe continues to pose a threat to the security of Europe and the U.S.

We hear a variation of this theme in the opposition to criminal background checks for port workers. We're told that only those with convictions directly related to national security should be barred from employment. Or that 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 security.

People convicted of crimes who serve their sentences and return to the community should have the opportunity to move on with their lives. But at a time when the nation's security is under constant threat from terrorists, and ports and ocean containers are considered as high risk as the conduit for attack, we need to ensure that those working in sensitive port areas do not have records of serious crimes. To do otherwise would indicate that we are not serious about port security.

Philip Spayd is director of Global Trade Systems Inc. in Scituate, Mass. He can be contacted at (781) 545-4462, or at philip.spayd@globaltradesystems.com.