Coast Guard grilled at House hearings

One year after sweeping new maritime security regulations went into effect, progress has been uneven in securing the nation’s ports and waterways from a possible terrorist attack.

There have been many successes, witnesses from the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection told a recent congressional oversight hearing on implementation of the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, but more needs to be done.

While members of the House Coast Guard Maritime Transportation subcommittee acknowledged important advances in security, they also pointed out several vulnerabilities and unfilled mandates, and admonished the federal government for painting too rosy a picture of maritime security. Lawmakers added that Congress and the administration have not provided enough funding to help ports meet security obligations.

“There are still many [security]challenges, and everything is not so fine,” said Bob Filner, D-Calif., citing gaps in checking containers on U.S.-bound vessels. “You should be honest about it, so that we can provide the resources you need.”

Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., subcommittee chairman, said his committee was especially concerned about “lack of progress” in several important security initiatives:

• A national Maritime Transportation Security Plan, as required by MTSA, has not been completed. Coast Guard officials said the plan would be released in August. 

• A domestic long-range vessel tracking system that monitors vessels far out from shore is still unfinished. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has implemented the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which provides information on vessel movement in 12 major ports, with plans for expansion.

• The Transportation Worker Identification Card is not finished. A pilot program is now underway to test a new ID card by issuing prototype cards in a handful of ports nationwide. 

• The Secure Systems of Transportation program, created under MTSA to improve cargo security, “exists in name only.”  

LoBiondo said after the hearing that his committee currently has no plans to amend MTSA.  

The Coast Guard was also grilled by lawmakers at another hearing in June about its revised implementation schedule for the Deepwater Program, which will replace its aging fleet of aircraft and larger vessels. 

Coast Guard officials defended the agency’s revised program and its budget. They urged Congress to support the Bush administration’s $966 million budget request for Deepwater. 

Lawmakers also criticized the USCG for having a “readiness gap” in its ability to respond to terrorist attacks, because many of its vessels and aircraft are so old.                         — P. Glass 

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