Homeland Security Rhetoric

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2003-09-09 Print this article Print

ONI is responsible for the collection, analysis and dissemination of "maritime intelligence"—anything pertinent to national security that happens at sea, including weapons proliferation, the transfer of components of weapons of mass destruction, technology transfer, terrorism, drug smuggling and illegal immigration. That means that the ONI serves not just the Navy and Coast Guard, but feeds intelligence information and analysis to the Department of Defense, FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Coast Guards intelligence center has access to the FBIs National Crime Information Center, which stores data on criminals, stolen property and missing persons, and can tap various terrorist watch lists. The Coast Guard has started to push ship arrival information to Customs. This helps build a more complete picture of vessel cargo and crew—although, says Richard Harding, chief of the Office of Intelligence-Systems and Security at the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard is still relying on ship captains to send it accurate crew lists. "Im not sure how we could verify it," says Harding.

While Harding says the Coast Guard is starting to use computers to track people, many ships are still tracked by whats known as "dead reckoning"—taking the time a ship leaves a port, factoring its speed and direction, and then plotting its course based on those numbers, which probably wont do much to track terrorists who dont want to be found.

What the Coast Guard needs, across the board, is a way to collect and analyze that data instantly. Todays powerful container vessel can cut the water at an average speed of about 23 to 29 miles per hour. Which means even a giant tanker could be more than 50 miles away from a location given to a cutter crew by the time the Coast Guard arrives.

"We cant afford a maritime version of 9/11. Once you find out something you dont have a lot of reaction time to do something about it," says retired Rear Admiral Pluta.

The Department of Homeland Securitys awareness of port vulnerabilities led it to issue guidelines for ship owners, terminal operators and the ports. It calls for national transportation worker ID cards, the installation of transponders on vessels so that they can be tracked, and tougher security measures around the ports. For Boyle, who already spends most of his days in meetings or poring over forms and documents, the guidelines are just another document to figure out. At the port level, the new policies call for the creation of security committees and the conduct of port vulnerability studies. Yet Boyle is still trying to make sense of portions of the government documents—in particular, the regulations that call for the creation of "security coordinators."

Starting in July 2004, the Coast Guard will have the power to fine or shut down any port that doesnt comply with its security directives. So Boyle will have to figure out the new regulations soon.

"There is so much coming at all of us," Boyle says. "Sometimes you almost dont know where to turn."

Next page: Weaknesses run deep.


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