In Washington today, House Republicans vowed to defy President Bush's effort to have a Dubai company take over six major U.S. ports. But ABC News has learned about a port threat from within -- a major security breach at the ports of New York and New Jersey.
The two ports handle millions of tons of cargo, with scores of cruise ships passing through each year. Truckers who transport much of the cargo are issued ID cards, which give them access to all areas of the port.
ABC News has learned that the cards, given to thousands of truckers by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were issued with virtually no background checks. The Department of Homeland Security recently investigated the New York and New Jersey ports, and found stunning gaps in security.
The new DHS report, obtained by ABC News, shows that of the 9,000 truckers checked, nearly half had evidence of criminal records. More than 500 held bogus driver's licenses, leaving officials unsure of their real identities.
"We have no idea who's in the ports. And many of the folks who come in to service the ports, that drive the trucks back and forth, are people who don't have very distinguished backgrounds. May have criminal backgrounds," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.
The intelligence report found truck drivers had been convicted of homicide, assault, weapons charges, sex offenses, arson, drug dealing, identity theft and cargo theft.
According to the report, a review of incident logs involving truck drivers at the Newark Seaport in late 2005 revealed one who was identified as an MS-13 gang member. MS-13 has been described as one of the most dangerous gangs in the United States. The logs also highlighted an incident involving "four cabs without containers [which] exited the terminal without stopping at the red light and ignored verbal commands to stop."
The report also says 33 ID cardholders were identified in narcotics-related offenses, including people arrested for the possession of cocaine and heroin. Others were involved in drug smuggling. In one incident, according to the report, authorities found 13 pounds of cocaine concealed under a truck's sleeper cab.
Money laundering and counterfeiting pose other security problems, the report points out. Authorities once seized almost half a million dollars, which was concealed inside a truck's rocker panels.
The report concludes port "security gaps" expose "vulnerabilities that could be capitalized by terrorist organizations." It also found similar problems at other major U.S. ports.
"It has to be a wake-up call," said Rep. Peter King, R- N.Y. "I strongly believe that, from any number of levels, the ports are our greatest vulnerability."
Security analysts say terrorists working with truck drivers could plant a bomb aboard a cruise ship and detonate it once it's at sea, or they could pack a 40-foot cargo container full of explosives and blow up part of a port.
"If a bomb went off in a sea port," said Flynn, "we would likely see a closing of the sea ports, bringing the global trade system to a halt and potentially putting our economy into a recession."
Homeland Security officials tell ABC News they are trying to improve port security and have recently tested a national program that will vet truckers before they are issued identification cards.
ABC News' Pierre Thomas filed this report for "World News Tonight."