Coast Guard: Security not undermined by notice of vessel inspections
U.S. Coast Guard and maritime industry officials dismissed a weekend New York Times report that the agency sometimes tips off cargo vessels about offshore security searches, saying there was no evidence the practice has compromised security and that cooperation is beneficial when surprise visits aren’t necessary.
According to the Times report, the Coast Guard frequently provides up to 24-hour notice of inspections in response to complaints from vessel operators that unannounced boardings at sea disrupt shipping schedules and cost the companies money. The paper said advance notices are given in some ports and not others at the discretion of the port captain. Critics said the notices could give terrorists time to escape, clean up discrepancies or hide evidence.
The Coast Guard has boarded more than 16,000 foreign vessels and expelled or denied entry to 144 of them for not complying with provisions of the international maritime security code that went into effect in mid-2004. Many searches involve sea marshals checking the crew and cargo manifests against those filed with the ports. The Coast Guard also boards ships to check for safety, crew and environmental violations.
The sea service continues to conduct surprise inspections, but in routine cases where there is no suspicion of foul play it is willing to coordinate with carriers to help meet business requirements, said Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Carter.
“Security is a partnership. There are responsibilities that lie with the shippers, with the facilities, the agents and the Coast Guard. One of the ways we manage that partnership is taking into account the impact of what we do to commerce,” he said.
Liner carriers, for example, recently started a cooperative arrangement to help the Coast Guard monitor security conditions in ports around the world. Vessel captains are now able to voluntarily submit reports on how well ports are complying with the International Ship and Port Facility Code.
Port captains are empowered to make a determination based on intelligence, and information about the vessel and voyage history, whether providing advance notice of a visit is appropriate so the carrier can make necessary adjustments to its schedule, Carter said.
“The maximum amount of notice they are going to get is 24 hours. We don’t think that compromises in any way the integrity of our inspection processes or boarding processes,” he said.
Inspections can be conducted on the high seas or while the vessel is at anchorage outside the port. When an inspection causes a vessel to miss its berthing window the carrier can incur tens of thousands of dollars in labor costs per day because of longshore crews that have been reserved and get paid whether or not they offload a vessel.
“There is no allegation of any problem, that security has in any way been diminished by this,” said Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, which represents international liner carriers.
“To say that anytime you get a heads up defeats the purpose of the boarding is not true,” he said. “If the boarding doesn’t require a surprise visit, it makes sense to try to mitigate the delays to commerce that result.”
Coordinating cargo inspections with Customs and Border Protection or providing advance notice of sea inspections can help the Coast Guard meet its security requirements while helping carriers stay on schedule, Koch said.
Announced visits may allow the crew to get paperwork or other material ready so that they don’t have to waste time when the boarding party arrives. And giving a heads up about interest in conducting a container inspection doesn’t pose a problem because the container can’t be moved or accessed when it’s stowed with thousands of other boxes on the ship, Koch added.
“For logistical reasons, it may be helpful to either party to let them know ahead of time about a visit at sea, and that’s weighed against the intelligence and vessel history,” Carter said.