U.S. ports more secure since 9/11, officials say

WASHINGTON – Ten years after Congress passed a law requiring sweeping new maritime security programs, experts say U.S. ports and waterways have become more secure than they were at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Prior to 9/11, security was not a top priority for most U.S. ports, Bethann Rooney, security manager at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, told a hearing before the House subcommittee on Coat Guard and Maritime Transportation on Sept. 11. “That changed in an instant after that tragic day.”

Stephen Caldwell, head of maritime security issues at the Government Accountability Office, said good progress has been made on many fronts. He cited developing and testing security plans at ports, facilities and on vessels, screening foreign-flagged vessels and seafarers, building partnerships with international organizations and foreign governments, sharing information on threats and examining high-risk cargo.

Members of Congress also had praise for the Coast Guard. “Throughout the process, the service has been fair, transparent and relatively flexible with the large number of stakeholders in our maritime transportation system,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., subcommittee chair, said at the hearing. “Thanks to the leadership for the Coast Guard and the commitment from industry and their employees, I believe our ports and waterways are much safer than they were 11 years ago.”

But shortcomings persist.

The GAO noted that many security programs are slowed by irregular funding, delays in developing requirements, and weak management. There are no measures in place to evaluate effectiveness of security programs, the agency said, and the TWIC program remains merely a flashpass until new readers are required to read the credential and verify the holder’s identity. DHS is also re-evaluating the idea of scanning all containers arriving in the U.S.

The Port Security Grant Program is also problematic. “While monies have been distributed, the program has suffered from a number of problems,” Caldwell said. “Program management moved among different agencies, which reduced long-term accountably. The procedures of awarding funds were complex, leading to unspent funds. And finally, there has been little progress determining what the billions of dollars actually bought.”

Budget cuts for port grants are also troubling, noted Rooney of the Port of New York. She added that U.S. ports oppose a plan to merge all infrastructure grant programs, such as those for ports, transit, rail and emergency management, into one managed by the states.

Lawmakers expressed concern about the Coast Guard’s budget, and its ability to continue to carry out its core missions with an ever-increasing workload and shrinking funds.

“The administration has proposed slashing the service’s budget by $350 million and cutting the number of service members by over 1,000,” said LoBiondo. “Yet we have never asked the service to do more than they are doing now. Cutting funding while adding new responsibilities is a formula for failure.”

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