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Key Ports Deal Gone Unnoticed

Arab Firm Running Key Ports | By David Axe | June 12, 2006

A February attempt by a United Arab Emirates-based port management firm to take over management of several major U.S. ports stoked a public furor that resulted in Dubai Ports World withdrawing its bid. Critics of the deal pointed to the Emirates' proven ties to Al Qaeda and the vulnerability of U.S. ports to terrorist attacks and as entry points for weapons of mass destruction.

While the ports deal was being scrutinized in the press and in Congressional hearings, the ink was drying on another sale that, according to one insider, poses as great a risk to U.S. security.

In January, Emirates-based Istithmar purchased U.K.-based Inchcape Shipping Services, or ISS, a company that specializes in "ship husbanding" in more than 200 ports worldwide. Ship husbanding includes providing supplies, crew transportation and some security to vessels making port calls.

Al Qaeda operatives passed themselves off as boats crews assisting with ship husbanding (also known as "ship agents") to pull off the 2000 bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. With this sale, the issue now is whether an Arab-run firm will continue with a British company's approach to security and manpower.

In light of U.S. naval vessels' vulnerability while in port, one experienced ship agent employed by a U.S. firm says he is surprised that the Inchcape sale went virtually unnoticed by Congress and the press.

"Everyone in my industry knows about [the risk] and is amazed [that] the U.S. public has not picked up on [it]," said an insider who requested anonymity. "I even hear that Inchcape's new owners anticipated losing all their U.S. military business and are surprised that they're still the frontrunner despite others [being] out there in the market."

"Concrete barriers, guard shacks, bomb-sniffing dogs, water barriers, water-filled plastic barriers ... sand bags, metal detectors, etc … are arranged and installed by the contractor. I think anyone with imagination can understand the ramifications of a foreign government-owned company managing this without safeguards . An explosive detector could be either negligently maintained or purposely arranged to not detect certain bags or cargo, barriers could be faulty, bomb-sniffing dogs could really be family pets, etc ... This makes me most nervous."

"ISS has undergone rigorous external security checks, as well as having comprehensive internal policies on security," said ISS spokesman Nick Elliott. "ISS is … accredited through Lloyd's Register London, which externally audits its operating and control systems. ISS has additionally of its own volition engaged Security Services of America to provide independent reviews of individual hires within the United States and overseas, and to review compliance with the vetting process on a global basis each quarter."

According to Elliott, ISS holds contracts worldwide. Most recently, in 2005 the U.S. Navy competitively awarded ISS a contract for its regional husbanding requirements for the Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility, covering 27 countries in the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea and East Africa region. Under the contract, ISS is responsible for providing all the husbanding agent requirements of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships in ports throughout the region.

U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Bashon Mann said the service screens all contract personnel assisting its ships. "Whenever a U.S. Navy ship pulls into any port, appropriate force protection measures are implemented. U.S. Navy security personnel work closely with contracted firms and host nation security officials in every port."

In addition to providing pier side services, ISS maintains an Internet database of ships' schedules that terrorists could use to plan attacks , according to the insider.