Coast Guard faces daunting task
NEW YORK (AP) -- Attacks at home and war abroad have transformed the U.S. Coast Guard from an agency that once focused primarily on search and rescue to a force shielding Americans from would-be terrorists.
New rapid-response teams now intercept suspicious ships by lowering guardsmen from hovering helicopters. Vessels protect 170 vulnerable sites, from landmarks like the Statue of Liberty to nuclear plants. A national intelligence database now allows officers to identify suspect cargo far from shore.
The 36,000 men and women of the Coast Guard -- up 2,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- are on their highest alert since World War II. Another 3,000 Guard reservists have been called to active duty.
"Homeland security is our No. 1 mission now," said Cmdr. Jim McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman. "We have many more patrols on the water, more boardings of vessels, more security zones."
Many analysts say, however, that such steps are still insufficient.
"If we had to rate the state of our maritime security, on a scale of 1 to 10 -- on Sept. 11, we were a 1 and now we're getting close to a 3," said Steven Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer and senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Though it has roots dating to 1790, the modern Coast Guard was formed in 1915 from an amalgam of agencies that enforced maritime and customs laws. Over the years its mission has expanded, taking on responsibilities from drug enforcement to environmental and fisheries protection.
On March 1, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security. While Guard officials insist they have not abandoned other duties, their mission is far more focused now on protecting the nation's 361 commercial seaports and 120,000 miles of coastline and inland waters.
"Before it was all about boater safety, and search and rescue," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Mark Cutter, commander of the Portsmouth, N.H., Coast Guard station. "Now it's all about homeland security."
Despite a boost in the Guard's budget from $5.6 billion last year to the current $6.2 billion level, some say the investment is still insufficient. Nearly everyone says the task is daunting.
"The volume and velocity of the people and goods that arrive in our ports is so overwhelming that it makes the ability to filter bad from good an enormous challenge," Flynn said. "It's a bit like trying to catch minerals at the base of Niagara Falls."
For example, government officials acknowledge that only about 2 percent of the more than 7 million cargo containers that come into U.S. ports are inspected by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
As a result, identifying suspicious cargo ahead of time is essential -- the job of the Coast Guard. "What you have to do is a form of risk management -- identifying a ship or a container as high risk," Flynn said.
In each of the nation's ports, the Guard focuses on specific concerns -- in Miami, it means protecting cruise ships; in Houston, it's guarding fuel deliveries to petrochemical plants. In the waters around New York, 210-foot cutters ply the waters 220 days a year, up from 180 days before the terror attacks, Chief David French said. The number of Coast Guard personnel in New York has more than doubled.
"Seaports are especially vulnerable to the smuggling of clandestine weapons," said Ralph James, who heads national security research at Long Island's Brookhaven National Laboratories. "Terrorists can probably afford the $5,000 or so it costs to ship a container, which can carry weapons of mass destruction or explosives."
Coast Guard officials point to one recent case as an example of the how the new system can be effective.
Last weekend, a rapid-response team intercepted a suspicious vessel flying a Qatar flag and bound for a New Jersey refinery with 100,000 barrels of Nigerian crude oil. The intelligence database identified its captain and chief engineer as Iraqis.
Once aboard, the Coast Guard interviewed the crew and found "no reason to believe they were terrorists," McPherson said. "But that's how the security system is supposed to work."