America's 360 ports are the gateways for 90 percent of the nation's imports and exports and a front line in the war on terror. The overwhelming majority of the terminals at those ports are already leased or owned by foreign companies.
“In terms of security, I just think this is grossly overblown,” says Randall Larsen, with Homeland Security Associates. “It’s not a security risk because the U.S. government and local authorities control security.”
The companies are from countries such as China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and Denmark. Terminal operators typically lease space from a government port authority. They move goods on and off ships.
But security is, ultimately, the job of the U.S. government — Customs and Border Protection on land and the Coast Guard at sea.
Bill Heffelfinger, with Customs and Border Protection, says foreign companies pose no exceptional security risk, “because they have to meet our conditions for security within the port.”
While the current debate is fresh, many analysts point out the foreign presence at America's ports is nothing new. It's a byproduct of globalization and the decline in the number of American companies in the shipping business.
Foreign companies run about half the terminals on the East Coast and almost all of them on the West Coast — from Seattle to Los Angeles. Security is a constant challenge.
“We want to make sure that the port remains safe and secure and that the goods are shipped safely,” says Ronald Boyd with the Los Angeles Port Authority Police.
Dock workers insist there's a bigger problem than foreign companies. They maintain there are too few inspectors, and as little as 5 percent of the cargo entering the ports is checked closely enough.
“You add it all together and this does not look like a policy that is geared to providing the best security we can in our ports,” says John Gage of the American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents the dock workers.
Customs officials says every container gets some screening.
Perhaps one point of agreement: Who owns the terminals would not matter as much if America's ports were better protected.