It sounds like one of those crazy Internet rumors you need to double-check with the fact-checking websites, but it’s not. It’s real.
One of America’s busiest cargo shipping ports has been quietly turned over to a United Arab Emirates-based company whose chairman is none other than the brother of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear scientist.
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Remember the 2006 Dubai ports deal? There was a major controversy in the U.S. when six major U.S. seaports were sold to a UAE company, raising national security concerns about port security.
But nary a peep has been raised by a similar deal, secretly negotiated by the Obama administration, that turned over a Port Canaveral terminal to UAE-based Gulftainer, a company whose principals include Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar, who has been called the Middle East’s foremost uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons production expert, and his brother Hamid Jafar, a wealthy Iraqi oilman and chairman of the Crescent Group.
Crescent is the parent company of Gulftainer, which acquired a 35-year lease from Port Canaveral on the Florida coast in June 2014.
Unlike the Dubai ports deal a decade ago, this one got no media coverage and little scrutiny by Congress.
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To make sure a full security review wasn’t required, Barack Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew suggested a 35-year lease rather than a purchase.
"What could possibly go wrong with giving control of a critical port to a company like that?" asked Frank Gaffney, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control Policy in the Reagan Administration.
He told WND, "It's shocking, but it's just an example of what can go wrong if nobody is paying attention."
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It’s not as though no questions were raised.
The deal was vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Maritime Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard. Only one member of Congress made an effort to further investigate the Port Canaveral deal.
On July 29, 2014, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Lew requesting a full review of the deal by the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS. That review never occurred, and Gulftainer was given permission to open its new terminal one year later in June 2015, because of the agreement to lease rather than sell the terminal.
"It is my understanding that the agreement marks the first time a Middle Eastern company will fully operate a U.S. cargo terminal," Hunter's letter stated. The letter said the review "is not for the purpose of immediately terminating the agreement but rather making the appropriate determinations in the interest of U.S. national security. This should be the case for all investments in which foreign investors acquire or gain operational control of critical U.S. infrastructure used in international trade."
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That review never took place. Hunter's chief of staff, Joe Kasper, refused to respond to WND's repeated requests for comment from the congressman this week after first saying he would "circle back" and ask the congressman for a statement.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office also avoided WND's request for comment on the Canaveral deal, referring WND to a public-private entity that deals with economic development in the state.
"We will have someone from Enterprise Florida, which deals with incentives, reach out to you to help with your story," said Scott's spokeswoman, Jeri Bustamante. No one from the agency ever contacted WND.
The fact that Hamid Jafar is the brother of Dr. Jafar, the nuclear physicist who designed Saddam's nuclear program, was given no media coverage in 2014. The Jafars are part of a prominent Shiite Muslim family from Iraq that claims to be direct descendants of Islam's prophet, Muhammad.
According to a 2010 article by an Abu Dhabi business publication, Dr. Jafar, now 69, "keeps a low public profile, preferring to leave the day-to-day running of his family's regional business empire to the next generation. His sons Majid, 34, and Badr, 31, are the public faces of Crescent Petroleum. Both are executive directors."
Badr is also the chief executive of the sister enterprise, Crescent Investments. It was Badr who signed the agreement with John Walsh, CEO of the Canaveral Port Authority, in June 2014.
Hamid Jafar told IntelliNews that Gulftainer is the seventh-largest port operator in the world and has operations at Jeddah and Jubail in Saudi Arabia; Umm Qasr in Iraq; Ust-Luga in Russia; and Recife in Brazil.
Security operations at Canaveral will continue to be operated by the Port Authority, the Orlando Sentinel reported in a June 23, 2014, article that touted the project as an economic juggernaut for the Florida coast, creating 2,000 jobs – 95 percent of them to be filled by Floridians – and pumping millions into the local economy.
Security experts have long pondered the threat to U.S. ports and urban centers posed by nuclear smuggling using cargo containers large enough to hide a warhead.
Even before the deal was completed for Canaveral's expansion under Gulftainer, it was already one of the busiest ports of entry in the U.S., with more than 4 million tons of cargo per year.
The deal represents the port's first foray into the container business, having previously handled mostly bulk, breakbulk, refrigerated, military and construction-related cargoes, as well being the nation's busiest port of call for cruise ships, according to the trade journal American Shipper. Gulftainer is investing $100 million in infrastructure, equipment and personnel to run the 20-acre terminal, which is expandable to 40 acres.
In 2006, a major international controversy came to a head over security concerns when Dubai Ports World acquired several U.S. port operations along the East Coast.
Then-President George W. Bush weighed heavily in favor of allowing Middle East allies to conduct business in U.S. ports. But Dubai Ports World sold its interest in the U.S. ports shortly after it bought them, a move seen widely as a defeat for Middle Eastern port companies trying to establish a foothold in the lucrative U.S. cargo market.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey told WND the transfer of control at Port Canaveral is "conceivably" a major concern and it should be getting more scrutiny in light of the flap over the Dubai ports acquisition in 2006.
"We had a big flap several years ago over Dubai owning and controlling several ports on the East Coast, and it got switched around rather quickly after that situation came under intense media coverage and public outrage," Woolsey said.
But the Canaveral deal has not received anywhere near the amount of publicity as the Dubai purchase.
"I think the main problem with port access if the owner now is Mr. Hussein's nuclear chief's brother, or when we were looking at Dubai, is that there could be some influence from some folks wanting to smuggle something in, if you just look at some of the possibilities. The ports are different, are more problematic on some things than, say, airports."
That's because of the capacity to have "very substantial amounts of material, whether nuclear or chemical, in bulk" at a seaport, Woolsey said.
"And I don't know the process for effective TSA searches for airports and seaports, but I do know we had a situation six months to a year ago, in which the employees of several of the major airports were hired by a company that had a background in which it was saving money by hiring people principally from the Middle East," Woolsey said.
"So if it's an airport and you're just walking along the flight line at night near the hangars and you have a small suitcase in your hand with a nuclear weapon in it, and the explosive would go off when you get near the plane, it would probably be considerably easier to do something devastating at an airport than a seaport. But the seaport would potentially provide a place where it’s a very high volume substance of some kind, whether chemical, biological or nuclear," he added.
"They both are vulnerable unless you're doing a very good job of vetting employees who work there, and making sure nobody sneaks chemical weapons or something like that into a cargo container."
Kenneth Timmerman, author of "Deception: The Making of the YouTube Video Hillary and Obama Blamed for Benghazi," said there should have been a CFIUS review of the deal.
CFIUS is the Committee for Foreign Investment in the U.S., and it is responsible for reviewing the national security implications of foreign companies looking to buy critical U.S. infrastructure. Such reviews are launched by the treasury secretary.
"But there never was [a review] in 2014," Timmerman said.
"Why was there no CFIUS review?” asked Timmerman. “That's the biggest question to me. At least they should have reviewed it. Was there a review and they found it was fine without going through the official process? It seems to me there should have been a full review. The question is, if there wasn't one, why not?"
Port spokeswoman Rosalind Harvey told the Sentinel, “After extensive filing of all required paperwork to U.S. Treasury Department officials, the panel found that no review was required because the agreement was a lease and not a purchase of Port assets."
Woolsey said Congress should be more involved in these types of transactions.
"What it may speak to is we don't have a very good system for reviewing and making available to Congress and even relevant parts of the executive branch [information] that involves our important infrastructure," he said. "Airports and sea ports need to be watched carefully and vetted. But exactly who would have been responsible for negotiating and whether there could be a substance we should worry about would be speculation on my part.
He said the Dubai Ports deal has clear parallels to the Canaveral deal, and it appears maybe some lessons went unlearned. He said Gulftainer may have learned lessons on the other side, however, such as how to keep the deal out of the public spotlight until after it was consummated.
"Whoever got involved in doing it may have taken a lesson from Dubai to make sure they didn't have any public speculation about it," he said. "It seems strange. It seems someone ought to have had this on their radar. And it makes you wonder whether Congress had it brought before them at all and whether they should have had a closer look."
Walsh, CEO of the Canaveral Port Authority, signed the agreement with Badr Jafar, chairman of Gulftainer’s executive board, at a ceremony held at Port Canaveral on June 23, 2014.
“This agreement marks a new era for Port Canaveral,” Walsh beamed in a statement published by the Orlando Sentinel. “With work on the widening and deepening of the Canaveral Harbor currently in progress, the new container and multi-purpose cargo terminal will further underscore our credentials as one of the most important economic engines for our region, while providing value to Central Florida shippers and distribution facilities by lowering overall costs and offering more efficient links to the supply chain.”
“The decision to grant this agreement to GT USA was made after careful consideration and due diligence. An international port operator, the company has strong competencies in port development and supply chain improvement that is an ideal fit to our port development objectives,” Canaveral Port Authority Commission Chairman Tom Weinberg told the Sentinel. “This is a true game-changer that will strengthen our cargo operations."
Port Canaveral is a cruise, cargo and naval port in Brevard County, Florida, near Orlando. It is one of the busiest cruise ports in the world with 3.9 million cruise passengers passing through during 2014.
Recently, SpaceX, a company that designs, manufactures and launched advanced rockets into space, has begun moving some of its operations over to Port Canaveral. SpaceX plans to lease "the 52,000-square-foot building" in Port Canaveral.
SpaceX currently operates two launch pads at Kennedy Space Center and nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and it is rapidly expanding.