News that Pakistan's top nuclear
scientist was engaging in nuclear arms sales sent shock waves around the world.
What was alarming to security experts was how easily the sensitive materials
slipped undetected through major ports. The sheer volume of goods shipped through
seaports makes ferreting out contraband material a nightmare.
When Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan wanted to ship nuclear-related
materials to spots like Libya or Iran, his customers had little to fear. The
contraband goods, hidden amidst the huge number of massive shipping containers
that move every day through the port of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates,
easily escaped detection.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Brookes, now a senior
fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Khan's actions have underscored
of high-volume seaports to high-tech smugglers. "What we really have learned
from this - not focusing just on Dubai," he said," [is] there are a lot of places
in the world where these sorts of materials, this sort of contraband, can pass
And if a simple smuggler can so easily move his wares through a port, it
is even more frightening to contemplate what a determined terrorist might be
able to accomplish.
Each day in ports around the world, thousands of huge metal cargo containers
are loaded on and off of ships. That, say analysts, makes the odds heavily
in the smuggler's favor. It is simply impossible for customs agents to thoroughly
search every container.
A thorough scrutiny of one container may take up to eight hours. In many
places, laws may be lax and customs officials corrupt. As Mr. Brookes pointed
out, in a high-density port, containers can easily be moved in and out of a
port with false documentation about the contents and destination.
"Sometimes one or two percent of things are inspected," said Mr. Brookes, "and
the people, the smugglers who move these sorts of things, don't write on the
box 'centrifuge parts for nuclear weapons' or 'for nuclear power plants.' They
disguise these sort of things. There is a lot of documentation that is false.
Things are often mislabeled. They are not actually what they say they are."
Experts say the status of Dubai as an open port and a freewheeling trade
zone, and its location straddling the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, make
it especially attractive to smugglers, particularly those operating out of
South Asia and the Middle East. According to news accounts, everything from
Western cigarettes to pirated computers flows through Dubai. It has figured
in several nuclear arms diversion cases in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as
figuring prominently in the Khan case. Last month President Bush singled out
SMB Computers, a Dubai-based company, as a front for the Khan network.
Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control
in Washington, called Dubai a haven of illicit activity, and sharply criticized
authorities there for what he says is a lack of cooperation in cracking down
on the nuclear proliferators operating through Dubai. But it is not, he said,
the only such hub.
"Dubai is by far the biggest offender, although there are other countries
that have come to attention as re-transfer points," said Mr. Milhollin. "One
of them is Hong Kong. If everything in Hong Kong that was supposed to go to
Hong Kong were in Hong Kong, the place would sink. There's not enough room
Analysts cite Rotterdam, Hamburg, Singapore, and New York as other worrisome
ports of entry.
In a visit to the port of Charleston in South Carolina last month, President
Bush said he is requesting nearly $2 billion in the next fiscal year's budget
proposal for seaport security in the United States.