San Diego Union-Tribune

December 7, 2001

Coast Guard commandant says resources strained


WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard has cut back on many of its normal activities, including illegal drug interdiction, to deal with its expanded mission of protecting the nation's coastline and harbors in the war against terrorism, the service's leaders testified yesterday.

But the new duties are straining the Coast Guard's personnel and equipment, which have suffered from years of reductions, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and Adm. James Loy told Congress.

Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, said he has virtually every ship and aircraft engaged in protecting the ports and coastal areas. Most of his active-duty personnel, plus 2,200 recalled reservists, are working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, he said.

Loy said the port security demands leave the Coast Guard with almost nothing devoted to fisheries protection, drug interdiction, immigration control or its other normal duties.

That level of security activities "simply is not sustainable without additional resources," he testified.

"I desperately need additional resources for the Coast Guard," added Mineta, whose agency includes Loy's service.

While Mineta and Loy were seeking help for the Coast Guard at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was listening to a litany of frightening accounts of the potential danger of terrorist attacks on the nation's ports.

"The destruction that can be accomplished through security holes in our seaports potentially exceeds any other mode of transportation," Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., told Senate colleagues.

Hollings noted that one cargo ship could hold thousands of containers of hazardous materials as big as a truck bomb, such as the one that shattered the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Or a hijacked oil or natural gas tanker exploded in a port such as Los Angeles "could potentially kill thousands of people and destroy many city blocks," Hollings warned.

Witnesses at both hearings said the danger of a deadly terrorist action at one of the nation's ports is magnified by the large number of people and the amount of cargo and the poor security at most ports.

An average of 51,000 ships visit U.S. ports every year, carrying 6.5 million cruise-liner passengers, 6 million containers and millions of tons of petroleum and chemicals.

But witnesses said U.S. officials have little advanced information on incoming ships, their cargo, their crew or even their true owners. Only about 1 percent of the closed cargo containers are inspected on arrival.

Hollings and others noted that two years ago a presidential commission found the security at most U.S. ports "poor to fair," with weak physical security around the terminals, little scrutiny of employees holding sensitive security jobs and poor coordination among the private firms and the many government agencies involved in port security.

Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a bill early this year to improve security at the ports. The bill was strengthened after Sept. 11, he said.