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American Shipper

Coast Guard’s eyes and ears

Coast GuardÆs eyes and ears

By Eric Kulisch



   Sen. John D. 'Jay' Rockefeller made clear at a July 21 Senate Commerce Committee hearing that he considers the small-boat threat a top priority for the U.S. Coast Guard.

   There are more than 17 million small craft operating in U.S. waters, according to the government, and many experts worry that terrorists could use boats as waterborne improved explosive devices to attack a large vessel in a harbor or critical waterfront infrastructure, such as an oil terminal.

   One of the best tools for monitoring the small-boat population is America's Waterways Watch, a low-cost program that relies on the law-abiding boating public to serve as eyes and ears for the Coast Guard and inform it about potential security threats, testified Adm. Robert Papp, the service's new commandant.

   The program brings commercial and recreational boaters into the Coast Guard's system for maintaining real-time visibility of the maritime environment by turning them into low-tech sensors, rather than assuming each boat is a potential security threat that needs to be regulated, Papp said.

   'Most of these lobstermen up there (in Maine), or those fishermen on the George's Bank know each other, know who's supposed to be out there. They know strangers when they come in there or behavior that is not normal. If they have an avenue to be able to report this to the Coast Guard it helps us with our situational awareness and we can investigate it,' Papp said.

   'Good intelligence is clearly essential to the small boat problem. The Coast Guard, as a member of the intelligence community, is constantly looking for trends or activities that might indicate a potential threat,' he added.

   The boater-engagement policy was endorsed in an August article by Jena Baker McNeil, a homeland security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

   'Suggesting that the primary risk to U.S. national security lies with the millions of American pleasure boaters is the wrong way to approach the small-boat challenge. Not only would placing the assumption of guilt on boaters be largely ineffective; it would have a potentially disastrous financial impact ' not only on boaters but on boat builders and the entire boating industry as well. Nevertheless, these are the areas where legislative solutions have often centered. The true solution should come from working with the maritime community, enhancing already inherent organizational structures, and educating those who know the waters best.'

   Security expert Stephen Flynn several years ago criticized the Department of Homeland Security for not providing enough support for America's Waterways Watch. The voluntary program, which receives a bit more than $1 million per year, lost part of its funding when the Defense Department stopped including it as part of a readiness training program for military reservists in fiscal year 2008. It primarily depends now on the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a voluntary organization, to reach out to the boating community for its help in detecting suspicious activity, according to the Government Accountability Office.

   The sea service also is testing an initiative in California ' Operation Focused Lens ' to increase public awareness of suspicious activity in and around U.S. ports and identify boat ramps, marinas and other locations likely to serve as points of origin for an attack.

   The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office within DHS is still conducting a three-year demonstration program under which it equipped Coast Guard, harbor police and emergency response boats in a couple of ports with handheld and mobile radiation detection devices to check for the presence of nuclear weapons and radioactive material on pleasure craft, tugboats and other small vessels.

   Papp said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is reviewing an updated strategy for defending against small boat attacks.

   But Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, expressed skepticism about enlisting the boating public as a force multiplier and pressed for stronger deterrence measures, such as random inspections.

   'What do you know about these boats? I'm not interested in whether they like us. I'm not interested in outreach. I'm interested in terrorism,' he said. 'If I were you, I'd take some pleasure craft and stop them. The word gets around. And that helps.'

   Rockefeller's bill, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2010 (S. 3639), doesn't go that far. It simply would establish a recreational vessel operator safety education and certification requirement instead of the voluntary educational options in place, institutionalize America's Waterways Watch and authorize appropriations for the program at $3 million per year through 2016.

   The SAFE Port reauthorization proposal (S. 3659) would indemnify citizens from frivolous lawsuits when they report, in good faith, suspicious behavior that may indicate terrorist activity.

   It also authorizes the Port Security Grant program at $400 million per year for five years to ensure ongoing support for infrastructure security enhancements by port authorities and private waterfront interests. Last year, Congress provided $300 million for port security grants plus an additional $150 million in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 2011 White House budget calls for $300 million in port security grants.

   The bill essentially codifies and tweaks many activities already underway at DHS and the Coast Guard regarding hazardous cargo standards, port security zones, the compliance of foreign ports with international antiterrorism standards, training of private sector security officers, disaster response and recovery plans for ports and a host of other narrow maritime security issues. And it offers liability protection to U.S. mariners and vessel operators who use force to defend against piracy.

   It also would require DHS to execute written agreements with each private or public marine terminal operator governing the use and placement of detection devices on the terminal's property.

   Although the bills' passage is unlikely in the near future, they enable senators to stake out their priorities and signal to DHS that it should maintain and expand the mentioned programs.

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