Thursday, February 23, 2006

Eyes on the ball

It would be easy to contrast President Bush's defense of rounding up people from Muslim nations against his veiled accusations of racism against anyone who objects to selling control of 6 American ports to a nation whose citizens are subject to "special registration" on entry to the US. I just did.

But who cares? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and there are bigger fish to fry. David Sanger keeps his eye on the ball:
The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards — and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.

Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container — the real fear here — "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said Mr. Flynn, the ports security expert.

That is where concerns about Dubai come in. While the company in question has not been a focus of investigations, Dubai has been a way station for contraband, some of it nuclear. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer, made Dubai his transshipment point for the equipment he sent to Libya and Iran because he could operate there without worrying about investigators.

"I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency said, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work is considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port."

That port, along with the five others Dubai Ports hopes to manage, are the last line of defense to stop a weapon from entering this country. But Mr. Seymour, head of the subsidiary now running the operations, says only one of the six ports whose fate is being debated so fiercely is equipped with a working radiation-detection system that every cargo container must pass through.

Closing that gaping hole is the federal government's responsibility, he noted, and is not affected by whether the United Arab Emirates or anyone else takes over the terminals.
Port security was on the radar shortly after 9/11, and the President was out early singing its praises. He would keep us safe because he was going to have every container inspected.

Years later, here we are with too few container inspections, too few radiation detectors, and no way to be sure about the course that a suspect container actually follows.

The administration is big on low-success, high-cost programs. NSA spying has prevented no serious plots that we're aware of and has blown a hole through the constitutional order. Torture has destroyed our credibility with the world, soiled our national soul, and it doesn't work. We invaded Iraq, a country with no ties to al Qaeda, and now we're fighting terrorists there.

What would work is effective port security. If there would be working radiation detectors and routine inspections at the nation's ports, terrorists wouldn't be able to ship a nuclear weapon into the country. But money that could have been spent on inspectors and detectors has instead bought Wyoming a robot to disarm bombs. Pipe bombs in Wyoming are important, but nuclear bombs in Baltimore, New York or Washington, DC (and then on to Wyoming!) are more important.

The 9/11 commission recommended a National Strategy for Transportation Security, but the document DHS prepared was so inadequate that the 9/11 Commission gave it a C- (pdf link). The 9/11 Commission also highlighted specific ways to improve our national intelligence capabilities. Not on the list? Tapping citizen's phones without warrants. Warrantless wiretapping is bad.

On the list: Strengthen Congressional Oversight of Intelligence. "Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be the most difficult, and most important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need." And rather than secret programs to illegally tap citizens' phones, the Commission recommended improved sharing of existing information. "The U.S. government has access to a vast amount of information. … But the U.S. government has a weak system for processing and using what it has. In interviews around the government, official after official urged us to call attention to frustrations with the unglamorous "back office" side of government operations."

Such changes would require effective oversight. And there's no basis to conclude that Senator Roberts, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, is exercising such oversight. He seems more interested in the political defense of the current administration than in defending the nation or the people within it, and that's a problem. We need Congress to get its eyes on the ball.