For the first time in U.S. history, a Middle Eastern-based firm is poised to manage a strategic U.S. port on Florida’s Atlantic coast, rekindling national security concerns inside Congress.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who oversees port security as chairman of the House Transportation’s maritime transportation subcommittee, demanded Tuesday that the Obama administration conduct a full national security review of the decision last month by Gulftainer to sign a 35-year contract with Florida’s Port Canaveral.

The firm is a privately owned cargo terminal operator based in the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of governments friendly to the U.S. but which has also been identified as a source of terrorist funding over the years. The 9/11 commission, in fact, reported that much of the money for the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington flowed through UAE’s open financial sector.

The Middle Eastern company will be operating a U.S. terminal in one of the busiest cruise ports in the world, and not far from the Trident Turning Basin, which the Navy uses to support its fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

Mr. Hunter wrote Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, urging that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency committee that reviews the national security implications on foreign investments, thoroughly review the Port Canaveral deal. “It is critical that — before this agreement proceeds — CFIUS determines whether a terminal operation agreement with Gulftainer presents any risk or impact to U.S. national security,” Mr. Hunter wrote.

Less than a decade ago, Congress forced Dubai Ports World, also based in UAE, to abandon plans to enter the U.S. port market after lawmakers cited security concerns and argued that foreign governments should not own strategic assets such as U.S. ports.

Following a 62-2 vote against DP World by the House Committee on Appropriations, the company abandoned its bid and sold off its American port operations.

Gulftainer has promised the Port of Canaveral a $100 million investment in its infrastructure, equipment and people. Port Canaveral’s chief executive officer, John Walsh, told the Orlando Business Journal that Gulftainer is a major part of the port’s goal to turn its $5 million annual cargo business into a $100 million business. Gulftainer will also help the Port purchase existing Florida East Coast Rail tracks to transport cargo into Central Florida and out of the state.


According to security experts, the major concern at U.S. ports is not the terminal operators themselves — or which nation owns them — but who screens the containers before they enter the U.S. seaport. “Smuggling things onto containers happens at various stages — those who load the trucks, the trains, the ships — until the container gets sealed and loaded.

The port areas are still very highly vulnerable to these types of scenarios,” said Stephen Flynn, founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. “There’s still massive amount of guns, counterfeit goods and narcotics moving through the container system.”

Indeed, during a press conference following the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague this year, President Obama said his biggest security concern was not Russia — or any other world power — but “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Today, the most likely way for that to happen would be for the device to be hidden in a container on a ship docked at a U.S. port, Mr. Flynn said. Not that congressional moves to secure the loading and the screening of shipped containers haven’t been made; they just haven’t been enforced.

In 2007, after the DP World deal fell apart, Congress passed a law requiring all overseas cargo containers to be inspected before they’re loaded onto a U.S.-bound ship. But that law has never gone into effect, said Mr. Flynn. “It gave DHS five years to comply with the requirement, but built into [the] legislation was an escape clause [that] if it wasn’t workable, a two-year extension could be given,” Mr. Flynn said