The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
March 1, 2006
In a rare flash of wit for a dour dude, 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck laid out a basic rule of government credibility: "Never believe any rumor until it has first been officially denied."
An updated, Americanized version of the rule is that citizens should get worried whenever the White House says, "Fears are exaggerated," or that concerns are being "addressed."
The Dubai Ports World deal has the Bush administration -- bolstered by bipartisan, pricey Washington, D.C., lobbyists -- scrambling to reassure Congress and the public.
We should, they say, not worry about the management takeover of six East Coast and Gulf Coast ports by a firm owned by the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. government handles port security.
In 2004, Port of Seattle boss Mic Dinsmore wrote a much-quoted Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post arguing that U.S. ports are the neglected stepchildren of homeland security.
He was on target then, still is today.
"The reason this (port takeover) is important is that we have not invested enough in port security: It is a huge hole in the war on terror," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has campaigned to upgrade the priority given to screening U.S.-bound cargo.
How much money is proposed for port security grants in President Bush's budget for the coming year? Zero.
Deep down, the Washington, D.C., press corps can be awfully shallow. Coverage of the Dubai deal has focused on Democrats seizing a security issue and a split between Republican lawmakers and a Republican president.
Supercilious CNN commentator Bill Schneider even awarded a "Political Play of the Week" to GOP congressional leaders who picked the port deal to distance themselves from Bush.
Talking heads on television might start grilling Homeland Security honchos: Can we be sure U.S.-bound containers are being sealed overseas? Are we confident we know what is in them? Do ports have equipment to monitor for radiation? After all, ports front on major urban population centers.
A lockout by employers on West Coast ports showed the backups that result when operations are disrupted even briefly. What paralysis would result if a terrorist group smuggled an explosive or chemical device onto a U.S.-bound shipment, tracked it and set it off?
"We're spending billions at our airports with the TSA, but this administration has really put very little in the pot for the ports," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., dean of the state's congressional delegation.
In a bipartisan letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thomas Collins, Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., this week wrote, "It is extremely difficult to maintain the security of our borders and ports with the minuscule resources provided by the Coast Guard to conduct its port security mission."
In a nationwide review, under the Maritime Security Act, the Coast Guard identified $7.4 billion in port security upgrades needed in the next decade.
Our congressional delegation and other coastal lawmakers have fought hard to appropriate at least $400 million a year to meet these needs.
They managed to get $175 million last year -- a drop in the bucket compared with even the weekly cost of the war in Iraq.
Cantwell was briefed Sunday on a pilot program, being developed in the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, which attaches electronic seals to containers. But, she lamented, federal officials receive proposals for three or four local innovations for every program that gets money.
In a defensive news release Monday -- obviously responding to Sunday's critical coverage on CBS' "60 Minutes" -- the Department of Homeland Security listed security-related grants to East and Gulf Coast ports.
What the release did not say was that money for the ports of New York-Newark, Los Angeles-Long Beach and Seattle-Tacoma was held up by the administration. Money was released only after Murray blocked Senate confirmation of a top presidential appointment.
Nor, tellingly, did Homeland Security say a word about West Coast ports -- the real stepchildren of federal neglect.
"Fifty percent of freight coming into America comes to West Coast ports. Yet only 20 percent of federal infrastructure money comes here. We are undernourished from the get-go," said Bruce Agnew of the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center.
Bombarded by Washington, D.C., power plays, celebrity scandals and missing blondes, Americans have a tendency to ignore serious warnings.
Our capital yawned in early 2001 when a bipartisan panel predicted an imminent major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Ditto the reaction in 2002 when National Geographic ran a cover story on vanishing wetlands in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans' vulnerability to a major hurricane.
Port security must not join this list of the predictable and preventable.
With about 10 percent of containers imported into the United States passing through local waters, the target next time could be us.
"I'll tell you where my constituents are," Cantwell told a hearing yesterday. "They want to know why we spend billions of dollars on Star Wars defense, and yet we don't have the security to guarantee that there's not going to be a nuclear device in a cargo container that comes to the Port of Seattle."
P-I reporter Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.