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GAO report outlines Caribbean security issues

GAO report outlines Caribbean security issues

A U.S. government watchdog agency said U.S. and Caribbean nations officials should be concerned about potential dangers in Caribbean ports such as attacks on cruise ships or liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities.

   The Government Accountability Office report on maritime security in the Caribbean said the Caribbean Basin is effectively 'the third border' of the United States because of extensive trade and tourism between the U.S. and Caribbean nations.

   'While intelligence sources report that no specific, credible terrorist threats to maritime security exist in the Caribbean Basis, the officials we spoke to indicated that there are a number of security concerns that could affect port security in the region,' said Stephen Caldwell, GAO director of homeland security and justice issues, in an introductory letter to congressional committees.

   Caldwell is the main author of the report, which was authorized in through the SAFE Port Act of 2006. The report, based on research conducted between October 2006 and June 2007, notes 'the growing influence of Islamic radical groups and other foreign terrorists' in the Caribbean Basin regions. It specifically mentions that individuals allegedly involved in this year's plot to attack JFK International Airport in New York were from Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, and are believed to be in contact with the radical Islamic group Jamaat al Muslimeen in Trinidad.

   Jamaat al Muslimeen conducted a standoff attack on the Trinidad National Parliament in 1990.

   Cruise facilities and LNG tank farms pose the most attractive targets for a terrorist attack, the report said. It cited previous work on maritime security that indicated the most likely methods of attack in a port are a suicide attack using an explosives-laden vehicle or vessel, a 'standoff attack' using small arms or rockets, or a traditional armed assault.

   The GAO report said officials interviewed suggested there are broader dangers. Those include 'the level of corruption that exists in some Caribbean nations to undermine the rule of law in these nations,' organized gang activity near or within port facilities, and the geographic proximity of many Caribbean nations, which make them inviting gateways for cocaine and heroin destined for the United States.

   While the 39-page report looks at problems and potential problems for Caribbean maritime security, it also offers extensive information on maritime security improvements throughout the region.

   Most ports, port stakeholders and ocean carriers follow the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, the international standard for maritime security. The U.S. Coast Guard has also visited 29 Caribbean nations to assess the progress of post-9/11 security improvements, and confirmed that most of the countries have 'substantially implemented the ISPS code.'

   Although some ports still need to make improvements to meet ISPS standards, the GAO noted there are widespread efforts to do so, primarily because failure to meet ISPS standards would lead to U.S. trade restrictions.

   The report also stressed participation in joint U.S. security programs, such as the Container Security Initiative, the Department of Energy's Megaports Initiative to scan containers for nuclear or radiological materials, and the Customs and Border Protection programs the Caribbean Corridor Initiative and the Secure Freight Initiative. CCI is a multi-agency initiative that targets drug smuggling in the eastern and central Caribbean. SFI was initiated in December and integrates security programs involving supply chain sources, vessels and crews, and information related to specific cargo. It also uses foreign and domestic resources for radiation detection at marine facilities.

   The report also said there are some economic limitations to security improvements in the Caribbean, but added the United States is working to assist in some cases, such as with the U.S. Agency for International Develop funding to help Haiti comply with ISPS standards.

   The full report is available at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d07804r.pdf .