Joseph King is hardly a crank. A former special agent with the U.S. Customs Service, he’s now a professor at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. So when he raises the possibility of Islamic terrorists using domestic gangland networks to smuggle materials for weapons of mass destruction through a U.S. seaport, he ought to be taken seriously – even in the aftermath of the collapse of a tentatively-approved merger between the British-based P&O and DP World, the latter a subsidiary of the government of United Arab Emirates. That deal would have transferred control to DP World of a half-dozen U.S. port terminals. One less heralded reason for security fears, he and other observers say, may lie with the union representing 65,000 dockworkers along Eastern seaboard and other ports: the International Longshoremen’s Association.
The ILA has a long and well-documented history of ties to New York’s Gambino and Genovese crime families, the result of which has been numerous prosecutions and convictions. During 1977-81, for example, federal prosecutors secured the convictions of more than 50 union officials on racketeering and other charges. And in 2003 they persuaded a jury to convict Gambino family crime boss Peter Gotti and several top lieutenants of various crimes. Last July the Justice Department filed a civil racketeering suit against the ILA’s top leaders, including President John Bowers. The union, the suit said, served as a “vehicle for organized crime.”
The union-underworld relationship could be exploited by terrorist organizations, King fears. “It is an invitation to smuggling of all kinds, whether it is heroin, or weapons, or human trafficking,” he said. “Instead of bringing in 50 kilograms of heroin, what would stop them from bringing in five kilograms of plutonium?” This scenario suggests a plot out of a James Bond movie. But it’s close enough to real time to prompt at least one public official to take action. New York State Sen. Michael Balboni, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would authorize the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor to investigate whether new hires have terrorist ties. “Do we really think that terrorists aren’t going to exploit this situation?” he asked.
The commission has a longstanding policy of subjecting all job applicants at New York and New Jersey ports to a criminal background check. Regrettably, neither the union nor the Mob operates under such a rule. That’s why ILA top brass knows they can’t play it too safe. Though Bowers and other union chieftains continue to deny the existence of an ILA-Mafia relationship, they recently appointed two retired federal judges to serve as independent ethics monitors. And they have been critical of the DP World deal. In a February 21 news release, the union called upon the Bush administration to scrutinize DP World to avoid even the appearance of unnecessary risks. “Nobody in America cares more about port security than the Longshoremen,” said union spokesman James McNamara. One hopes reality in this case matches rhetoric. (Associated Press, 3/9/06).