But in some respects, foreign countries operating port terminals is the least of the problems America faces on the waterfront. 60 Minutes reported about some of those problems shortly after 9/11 and decided this was a good time to go back and take another look, beginning with Stephen Flynn, widely regarded as one of America's foremost authorities on port security.
Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.
"The No. 1 national security challenge to confront us is a weapon of mass destruction going off in a U.S. city. Well, it could come in a seaport. So we should focus on what it would take to make sure that doesn't happen," says Stephen Flynn.
Flynn has been called the "Paul Revere of port security." A former Coast Guard commander who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he has testified before Congress 15 times on the vulnerability of U.S. ports to terrorist attacks.
"We have a real problem on our waterfront. But it's less about who owns these few terminals in our country. It's about the systematic vulnerability," he says.
"So you're not terribly concerned by the fact that a company from Dubai is going to be operating port terminals in the United States?" Kroft asked.
"I'm concerned that the entire system is potentially vulnerable," Flynn replied.
Flynn says the weak link in the security chain is the standard 40-foot shipping container, so common now we barely notice it.
Almost everything we buy, sell, eat, drink or wear is moved in these metal boxes. They are essential to American commerce and international trade. And at any given moment, millions of them are being shuttled around the globe, on top of ships, trains and 18-wheelers, and piled up by the thousands at ports, depots and huge outdoor warehouses. When 60 Minutes first interviewed Flynn in the spring of 2002, he told Kroft the problem is that no one really knows with any certainty what's in those containers when they first arrive at a U.S. port.
"It is physically impossible to check every container without essentially stopping global commerce," Flynn said.
"Should we be talking about all this stuff? I mean, are we giving away secrets here by talking about this?" Kroft asked.
"The fact of the matter is criminals have been operating in seaports a long, long time," Flynn replied. "The bad guys know how open the system is. The good guys don't seem to have a real command on it here because we haven't paid as much attention to this problem as we need to."
Flynn took 60 Minutes on a helicopter flight over Charleston, S.C., one of the busiest seaports in the nation. It now handles more than one million containers a year. Flynn called them "the soft underbelly of globalization."
"It's an incredibly efficient system, but it's also a system that poses opportunity for bad people to do bad things," Flynn said.
Flynn says the most logical way for terrorists to smuggle a nuclear device or dirty bomb into the United States is to ship it into a U.S. port in one of these containers. And since many big cities were literally built around their ports, they present an attractive target.
"Now, if you were to set off an atomic device here, what are some of the things that could be affected?" Kroft asked.
"Well, it would not even have to be a chemical or biological or nuclear weapon. Because the only thing separating that container yard from basically where people live and work is a fence," Flynn explained, flying over downtown Charleston.