Congress is patting itself on the back for passing the Port Security Act last Saturday. But the day before, a House-Senate conference committee stripped out a provision that would have barred serious felons from working in sensitive dock security jobs. Port security isn't just about checking the contents of cargo containers, it also means checking the background of the 400,000 workers on our docks.For some background, it's worthwhile to look at an excellent piece from the New Yorker Watching the Waterfront by William Finnegan from June of 2006:
U.S. harbors are filled with workers convicted of serious crimes. Just last year the Justice Department filed a RICO suit charging that the 65,000-member East Coast-based International Longshoremen's Association is a "vehicle for organized crime."
But the House-Senate conference drastically watered down a Senate-passed requirement that aligned the standards for hiring dock workers with those used at airports and nuclear plants. The statute still bans workers who have been convicted of treason, espionage and terror-related offenses--a mere handful at most. But a seven-year time-out period on hiring those who've committed crimes such as murder, bribery, identity fraud and the illegal use of firearms was dropped in the dead of night at the behest of unions fearful that too many of their members could lose their jobs.
"The security stakes are too high to trust serious felons who could be manipulated or bribed by people trying to smuggle a nuclear device or chemical weapon into our ports," says Sen. Jim DeMint, sponsor of the dropped provision. Security analysts echo his fears. They say terrorists working with truck drivers could plant a bomb aboard a cruise ship or pack a 40-foot cargo container with explosives. Stephen Flynn, a former U.S. Customs official now with the Council on Foreign Relations, told ABC News that "if a bomb went off in a seaport, we would likely see a closing of the seaports, bringing the global trade system to a halt and potentially putting our economy into recession."
Officials at several ports echo these concerns. "There is a gaping hole in port security," Byron Miller of the Charleston, S.C., port, the nation's sixth largest, told me. "Right now, by law we cannot do background checks on 8,000 people who work at this port." He noted that a state bill to provide for background checks was killed last year after unions applied a full-court press against it.
Given the importance of New York Harbor, it seems odd that so much of it is still in the grip of organized crime. For generations, the Genovese family has controlled the New Jersey waterfront, and the Gambinos have had the New York side. The federal government is trying to assume control of the International Longshoremen’s Association, describing the union, in a RICO suit filed last July, as “a vehicle for organized crime.” Many of the union’s top leaders, the government alleges, are Mob associates. In Bayonne, the I.L.A. local has been under federal trusteeship since 2003, a drastic step taken after a long series of corruption scandals. Global Terminal’s offices were wiretapped in 2002, after law-enforcement agencies discovered that mobsters were discussing plans there. But over the years ambitious prosecutors, determined federal agencies, and courageous labor reformers have all made serious attempts to expel the Mob from New York Harbor, to little lasting effect. An argument can be made that it simply can’t be done.Read both linked pieces to get a feel for the complexities of the issues involved.
Part of the popular image of mafiosi is that they are sentimental patriots, who would never help terrorists. Another view is that a port that criminals can penetrate at will can never be called secure. Organized crime has even been described as a “fifth column,” ready to aid the terrorist enemy.