When Congress sent a seaport security bill to President Bush’s desk a few weeks ago, supporters were enthusiastic that our nation was giving top priority to a previously neglected area of national security. Shipping terminals and cargo containers, they noted, are ideal places where terrorists, with some inside help, could place a bomb, possibly of mass destruction. President George W. Bush, at the October 13 signing ceremony of the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006, also known as the SAFE Port Act, expressed the need for the law this way: “Our seaports are a gateway to commerce, a source of opportunity, and a provider of jobs. Our ports could also be a target of a terrorist attack, and we’re determined to protect them.” The law, however, may be more significant for what it leaves out than for what it includes. And what the bill leaves out, thanks to eleventh-hour deletions by certain union-friendly members of Congress, are safeguards against the hiring of hardened felons. The American people can thank two longshoremen unions, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), for a major hand in this.
In an effort seemingly designed to appease labor chieftains, House-Senate conferees drastically watered down a Senate bill that included provisions to bring hiring standards for dock workers in line with those for airport and nuclear power-plant employees. While the final measure prohibits the hiring of persons convicted of treason, espionage and terror-related offenses, it would affect only a handful of job applicants, say critics such as the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund. The key feature of the Senate bill – a minimum seven-year ban on the hiring of persons convicted of felonies such as murder, assault, identity fraud, and illegal firearms possession – is gone. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who had inserted the provision, finds this alarming. “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,” he said. Even a conventional bomb could shut down a huge part of our economy. “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,” remarked Stephen Flynn, a former U.S. Customs official now with the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with ABC News.
The 65,000-member International Longshoremen’s Association, operating under civil RICO indictment since July 2005, doesn’t exactly set a sterling example for new hires. But they and their West Coast counterpart, the ILWU, can be counted on to put membership and political clout at the top of their list of concerns. ILWU Communications Director Steve Stallone stated for the record that barring felons from jobs at secure dock facilities would be “double jeopardy,” pushing them back onto the streets where they would commit more crimes. Such fears found support within Congress. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, had staffers calling Port of Charleston (South Carolina) officials, telling them that their operation would be shut down if the DeMint provision became law – all the while publicly announcing support for the provision. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Senate bill’s list of covered crimes were “vague and overly broad.” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking Democrat, told colleagues “we should not play judge and jury” – indeed, he opposed even the bill’s anti-terrorist provisions. But the issue of criminal background checks isn’t going away so long as criminals keep applying for jobs – and getting them. The Department of Homeland Security, which supported the DeMint bill, recently probed the Ports of New York and New Jersey, and found that nearly half of the 9,000 truckers it checked out had prior criminal records, including for murder, drug dealing and arson. Such persons, the DHS report concluded, represent “vulnerabilities that could be capitalized by terrorist organizations.”
Anyone familiar with the history of the ILA in particular knows its capacity for cutting sweetheart deals with the underworld. The Justice Department’s 400-page RICO suit alleges that for decades the Gambino and Genovese crime families, with the union’s blessing, controlled terminals at New York, New Jersey and Miami ports. Federal prosecutors want to remove ILA President John Bowers and three other top union officials from office and place the union into a receivership plan similar to the one overseeing the Teamsters since 1989. Longshoremen officials steadfastly deny all charges. What’s somewhat remarkable about this affair is that it comes only a half-year after our scrapping of a deal that would have transferred management of six U.S. seaports from a British-based firm to one operated by a company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It’s not that the transfer, eventually withdrawn, didn’t raise major security concerns; a section of the 9/11 Commission report, in fact, detailed highly disturbing linkages between the UAE and several hijackers. But given the uproar in Congress over that one, it would seem that lawmakers, if only for consistency’s sake, would have retained the DeMint provision. Unfortunately, the Longshoremen unions already had a contingency plan in the event that came about.