February 24, 2006

At New Jersey port, takeover dispute a world away

By Daniel Trotta

NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - The political battle over
whether U.S. port terminals can be safely run by an Arab
state-owned company is a meaningless sideshow, say U.S. federal
agents on the front lines of port security.

Out at the wind-swept Port Newark/Port Elizabeth, the
second-busiest U.S. port, one of those agents, Kevin McCabe,
shakes his head over the dispute regarding Dubai Ports World's
attempt to take over terminals at six major U.S. ports from
Britain's P&0.

"To me it looks like a seamless business transaction. What
goes on in the port is controlled by us and will remain
controlled by us," said McCabe, chief of U.S. Customs and
Border Protection at the port.

Lawmakers citing security concerns are outraged that Dubai
Ports World, an Arab state-owned company, is on the verge of
closing the deal.

U.S. President George W. Bush says it is perfectly safe,
but opponents from both major parties have demanded that the
deal be halted and thoroughly investigated. The Dubai firm
would acquire P&O assets worldwide for $6.85 billion.

The state of New Jersey and the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey also oppose the U.S. terminal handover and have
filed lawsuits seeking to stop it, and some members of the
International Longshoremen's Association remain unconvinced the
ports would remain safe in foreign hands.

"They used to say airlines were safe and now I look over
there and the World Trade Center is gone," said union member
Dominick Volpe, one of two flag-waving protesters out at the
sprawling port complex. "There's enough risk as it is. Why take
a chance?"

McCabe, the customs chief, gave reporters a tour on Friday,
showing off the kind of high-tech gadgetry that was able to
detect the normal radiation given off by a truckload of granite
from India.

"It doesn't matter to us who owns the terminals. We're
going to make sure we're doing what we need to do," McCabe

He also rebutted the oft-repeated assertion that only 5
percent of containers entering the United States were

"That's a fallacy," said McCabe, a portly man, who is quick
with a smile and fits the image of Irish-American policeman.

The actual percentage depends on how one measures
"inspection," and searches are far from random. Agents
determine which containers are suspect based on a screening
process that begins before cargo leaves a foreign port.


Port Newark/Port Elizabeth handles 1.8 million containers a
year, or some 5,000 a day, serving the New York City area.

Based on suspicions raised in the screening process, about
7 percent -- an average of 350 containers per day here -- must
pass through a gamma ray imaging system that takes a picture of
its contents. Agents will take the container apart if they are
still not satisfied.

Separate from that, 98 percent of all trucks leaving the
port also pass through a metal-frame radiation detector -- the
one whose alarm was set off by granite -- before driving off
the lot.

If the alarms sounds, an agent goes over the truck with a
hand-held device the size of a small loaf of bread. In this
case, it detected potassium 40, which is consistent with the
declared cargo of granite. The truck was allowed to go.

Customs and Border Protection demands manifests from cargo
ships 24 hours before they leave foreign ports. It also has
agents in 42 countries. The Coast Guard may stop other ships at

"We have a much clearer picture of the supply chain than we
did before 9/11," McCabe said.