‘Critically’ Inadequate

“I’d like to see us move toward really focusing on critical infrastructure that is controlled, owned or operated by any foreign government.”
— Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)

“It’s important that the secretary of defense, in consultation with Homeland Security, identifies what is critical infrastructure. . . . And having identified that, that that infrastructure be owned, operated and managed by Americans.”
— Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.)

At last we have a genuine bipartisan consensus. A Congress whose members cannot work together to prevent the coming Social Security crisis, to keep the nation out of debt or to fix the health care system has finally agreed on something: Foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to own or manage our critical infrastructure. Amazingly, this consensus has even outlived the Dubai ports deal that created it. This week Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he’s still looking to pass a bill forbidding foreign-owned companies from possessing or operating any “asset that is included on the national defense critical infrastructure list.” Hillary Clinton says she still wants to pass a narrower bill that would prevent state-owned foreign companies from “managing, controlling or owning U.S. port operations.”

Unfortunately, the consensus on critical infrastructure isn’t accompanied by a willingness to define what, exactly, “critical infrastructure” might be. A spokesman for Hunter told me that “critical infrastructure” meant anything whose destruction “would have a debilitating effect on national security, economic security or public health and safety.” A spokesman for Clinton said the senator’s legislation concerns only ports, but added that she still thinks that “in the post-9/11 world, we need fresh thinking on how to protect our critical infrastructure.”

Since this pretty much leaves the field open for anyone to make up his or her own definition, I’m going to avail myself of the opportunity. After all, at last count, foreign direct investment in the United States amounted to $486 billion. That means there are many thousands of foreign-owned properties whose destruction might have a debilitating effect on “national security, economic security and public health” and whose protection may require “fresh thinking.” Here are a few:

The sanitation system of Laredo, Tex. Along with plants in more than a dozen other U.S. cities, the wastewater treatment plant in this critical border city is managed by Suez, a French firm. Suez — which also owns a liquefied natural gas “port operation” in Massachusetts and makes regular gas deliveries at ports in Maryland and Louisiana — is negotiating a merger with a state-owned company, Gaz de France. Thus will the government of France — one of whose citizens, Zacarias Moussaoui, is on trial for terrorism in a U.S. court — be in a position to poison Texans’ water, interfere with border control and blow up gas terminals, too.

The highways of Indiana. With great fanfare, the Indiana authorities earlier this year announced that a Spanish company and an Australian firm would jointly manage the state’s main toll road. The two firms will also complete the unfinished “Hoosier highway” — presumably giving them access to all kinds of information about bridge and tunnel vulnerabilities. Spain, like Dubai, is a country that harbored terrorists, in advance of the Madrid bombings.

The refineries of Toledo, Texas City, Tex., and Carson, Calif., among others. All are owned by British Petroleum, a British company based in London. But even if all were sold to U.S. companies, BP would still own some $41 billion worth of fixed assets in the United States and would still be the largest marketer of natural gas liquids in North America and one of the largest distributors of gasoline as well. Britain, also like Dubai, has harbored terrorists: the London bombers, the shoe bomber, the IRA.

The pilots, tugs and dockworkers of New York, New Jersey and San Francisco, along with a dozen other U.S. ports. They all work for a company, Inchcape Shipping Services, that has a contract with the U.S. Navy. The company used to be British and was sold for $285 million in January to — the royal family of Dubai. Need I say more?

As I say, those are just random examples. Foreign investors also own and operate power plants, chemical plants and railroad tracks, and more refineries and natural gas facilities than I’ve got space to mention. The process of confiscating, nationalizing or otherwise forcing the sale of “critical infrastructure,” or even “port operations,” broadly defined, could go on for years, would cost billions and would certainly destroy this country’s reputation as a safe place in which to invest.

Instead of doing so, it might make more sense to institute a secure system of identity and background checks for all port or refinery employees, especially since it’s not necessarily more difficult to penetrate a U.S. company than a French or Arab one. It might also make sense to sit down and define “critical infrastructure” and to set priorities and think harder about which objects, American or foreign-owned, pose genuine dangers. But that would be complicated, expensive and time-consuming. It could only succeed with the support of a bipartisan Congress, one willing to devote the time and money to genuine security, and one whose leaders were willing to explain to the American public that in the globalized economy — a system whose rules we essentially wrote — it’s no longer possible to pick and choose whose investments we want. That sort of bipartisanship, alas, is still very far away.

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