Just how safe are America's ports right now? And how safe would they be if major port operations are taken over by a state-run Arab company?
Rear Admiral Thomas Gilmour of the U.S. Coast Guard and Jay Ahern with U.S. Customs and Border Protection played hardball with Chris Matthews Wednesday to answer those questions.
To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, ‘HARDBALL”: Admiral, a question to you. How are we doing right now without any changes in protecting our ports?
REAR ADM. THOMAS GILMOUR, U.S. COAST GUARD: Well, I would say since 9/11, we've come a long way. We've added a number of authorities. We had the Marine Transportation Security Act of 2000. We also have the International Port Ship and Facility Code passed. We've added a number of capabilities and people and vessels. We've certainly come a long way. But I think we have a long way to go.
MATTHEWS: What's the worst-case scenario? That somebody would sneak in some sort of explosive device that would blow up with heat or movement or something like that in a big container?
GILMOUR: Well, we've looked at it. We've looked at a number of scenarios throughout the port and tried to build our capabilities to address those different scenarios. Certainly those are scenarios we have. There's also the Cole style attack.
MATTHEWS: A what?
GILMOUR: A Cole style attack. A small vessel running into a ship that we've also tried to address.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Ahern, let me ask you, we've argued on this show many times, what percentage of our containers, those big containers that come to the ports, that get checked inside.
JAY AHERN, ASST. CMSR, CUSTOMS & BORDER PROTECTION: Last fiscal year, 11 million containers came in and we looked at about 5 percent of those containers.
MATTHEWS: How did you pick them?
AHERN: We have a risk based system. We go ahead and screen 100 percent of all the manifest information for every cargo container coming in to the United States. Based on information and intelligence and a risk based algorithm set, we screen them for risk at our national targeting center here in the D.C. Area, and make a determination of those risks. And that's how we focus our resources and our technology.
MATTHEWS: If a container like we're looking at comes from an Arab country, an Islamic country, is it more likely to be checked?
AHERN: It would be on the totality of the risk factors. We would take a look at all the parties involved in that transaction, nut just solely the country of origin or the port of final departure.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Admiral, about the possibility that military equipment, dangerous equipment, could come into our country. People could bring in launchers. All kinds of things are possible coming.
How do we make sure they don't get in?
GILMOUR: Again as Mr. Ahern said, the job of the CBP is to look at
the cargo that comes in. The Coast Guard really looks at the port. We are
in charge of the port security. We look at the vessels. We inspect the vessels for security. And we also look at the facilities themselves.
MATTHEWS: What happens if you hear there's a big shipment of U.S—not materiel but heavy military equipment coming in? Artillery, armor, that kind of thing. How do you check on that? Make sure nobody sabotages it.
GILMOUR: We have a layer of defense. If we had a cargo that was a risky cargo, we would try to board that as far offshore as we possibly can.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Ahern, let's get to the question. There's been a lot of argument about what security means. There's security like cops and guys in uniforms standing around to make sure nobody comes and sabotages port cargo. But there's also the cargo that comes in these big container.
I read about this guy who went around from New York to Dallas, hiding in one of these containers. He obviously wasn't checked. He may have been caught on arrival. Who checks to see what is in the containers? The U.S. Customs? Coast Guard? Or the company that runs the port?
AHERN: That is a responsibility of the United States Customs and Border Protection.
MATTHEWS: The Company in this case, the company Dubai Ports World, which has just taken over this British company, they would not be the ones checking into containers?
AHERN: Absolutely not.
AHERN: That's one of the distinctions we need to make sure as the viewers understand. That the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, has a responsible for inspecting containers coming in from foreign to make sure that they don't contain any weapons of mass destruction or any contraband of any kind.
I think it is important to know the ports in the United States are not just the first time we encounter this cargo. We have in 42 ports throughout the world Custom Border Protection officers, screening before they get put on the ship.
MATTHEWS: So it doesn't matter whether an Arab government-owned company buys a British company in a take-over. It doesn't matter to our security, you're saying.
AHERN: I'm saying as far as this transaction that has been in the media in the last few days, it does not change the operational protocols or increase the risks in our securities.
MATTHEWS: So you think it is a tempest in a tea pot.
AHERN: I think it hasn't changed any of the security in this country. I think that certainly this government, this administration, this Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security or our agencies would not have endorsed something.
MATTHEWS: Do you think this is an ethnic feud? We're just going after Arabs.
AHERN: I wouldn't say that. I think certainly there's just a lot of, you know, interesting issues that are being discussed openly in this. And I think, again, the security of the company is not compromised by this process.
MATTHEWS: Admiral, I know you're a serving office and you can't really express politics, but are you worried about this or not?
GILMOUR: Well, certainly, to follow onto Mr. Ahern, we would inspect the facilities the same regardless of which company owns the facilities, foreign or domestic.
MATTHEWS: So you'd trust but verify.
GILMOUR: And I would also add the fact that these are facilities that P&O currently owns that would be taken over.
MATTHEWS: The British company.
GILMOUR: For instance, in the port of New York, there are 182 regulated facilities. And P&O currently runs, operates or owns two of those facilities.
MATTHEWS: That's all.
GILMOUR: Yes, sir.
MATTHEWS: Maybe it has been overblown.
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