Shipboard security searches no longer a surprise
The Coast Guard is giving advance notice of ship inspections
LONG BEACH, Calif. » Under intense pressure from shipping companies concerned about costly delays, the Coast Guard is tipping off some large commercial ships about security searches that had been a surprise, high-ranking Coast Guard officials have said.
The searches began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as part of a major revamping of the Coast Guard and its new anti-terrorism mission. But shipping companies say the surprise boardings at sea cause unnecessary delays, costing up to $40,000 an hour.
"We're trying to facilitate commerce and keep the port secure -- and sometimes the two conflict," said Capt. Paul Wiedenhoeft, who is in charge of the port complex here at Los Angeles and Long Beach. "When possible, we're trying to give shippers as much notice as we can."
The practice has caused considerable confusion and debate within the Coast Guard. Commanders in some ports acknowledged in interviews that they provided up to 24-hour notice. Others said the practice undermined the inspections.
Even within the command at some ports, there was disagreement about the best approach. The port captain in San Francisco, Capt. William Uberti, said shippers were "not supposed to have a clue" about possible random boardings. Yet his security chief said the command gave shippers notice.
A typical search involves checking the crew and cargo manifests against those filed with the ports. Sea marshals check identification cards against the faces of crew members. They sometimes arrive with bomb-sniffing dogs and inspect with hand-held radiation detectors. Depending on the circumstances, a review can last half an hour or half a day, officials said.
Cmdr. Paul Thorne, a Coast Guard official in Washington, said the practice of giving shippers notice had not compromised security. "Threats are being adeptly managed by local captains of the port," he said.
But critics worry that the practice could undermine an important component of the layered security effort to keep terrorists out of the nation's longest border, more than 96,000 miles of coastline.
"The purpose of the inspections is for the Coast Guard to send a message to all these ships that they might be boarded at any time, basically to make sure there's no mischief on board," said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you say, 'Heads up, when you get close to port in two days, we're going to board you,' that sort of defeats the purpose of the boarding."
A spokesman for the Coast Guard in New York agreed, saying nearly 1,000 boats a year were boarded for security reasons in the ports of New York and New Jersey and that all the inspections were a surprise.
"If they're from a foreign port and trying to get into the United States, they should know they might get boarded -- without warning," said the spokesman, Mike Lutz.
In Hawaii the Coast Guard typically gives ships 24-hour notice as a practical matter, said Capt. Manson Brown, U.S. Coast Guard captain of the port for Hawaii and American Samoa.
Brown said stopping and searching a ship on the open ocean off Hawaii, in potentially rough seas, is difficult.
"We have to balance safety and security," Brown said.
He directs ships to stop at a fixed place and time with Coast Guard forces ready to intercept.
Brown did not believe the practice compromises security.
"It would be difficult to transfer cargo given the size of ships we typically board," he said.
As far as a human threat on board, "where are they going to go in the open ocean?" he asked.
A Hawaii shipping agency president said the checks are random. "We never know when they're going to board or not. ... Otherwise there's no surprise," said Bill Thayer, president of Waldron Norton Lilly International.
A ship must give 96 hours' advance notification to the Coast Guard about its arrival, what it is doing, its crew and cargo, Thayer said. The ship must also check in at 15 miles offshore. "Then it's up to the Coast Guard to board or not," he said.
He lauded the practice of advance notification, saying, "I think that's great. We need that kind of cooperation. We don't want any surprise crap."
He called the security checks a waste of fuel and taxpayers' money.
"We're less safe than before 9/11," Thayer said, citing the government's consolidation of agencies. "Nobody knows who's running the show. ... It's chaotic."
Since the middle of last year, the Coast Guard nationally has boarded more than 16,000 vessels and found numerous violations, most related to safety or the crew status. In 144 cases the vessels were temporarily held back from anchoring in American ports, the Coast Guard said without giving more details.
Shippers consider the inspections a nuisance because they delay the delivery of goods, and suggest that the notice allows them to make more efficient use of the inspection time.
Critics, however, suggest that the notice also gives a heads-up to potential terrorists, who could use the time to conceal evidence, create diversions or possibly even find a way off a ship.
Complaints about gaping holes in security have continued since 9/11 and heightened when a Dubai company planned to run five ports. People who work at the water's edge and outside experts say a larger concern is with an overburdened Coast Guard charged with protecting 361 ports, with more than 60,000 ports of call a year, while trying to overhaul its culture and focus.
For the Coast Guard, "it's been culture change with a capital C," said M.R. Dinsmore, executive director of the Port of Seattle. "They're trying mightily to adapt but they don't have the resources."
The New York Times News Service and Star-Bulletin reporter Leila Fujimori contributed to this report.