Coast Guard takes on new role, new image

Mission: The nation's smallest armed force becomes the heart and the teeth of the Homeland Security Department.

March 11, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Ice and slush closed in on the Coast Guard patrol craft as it crawled along a desolate coal and oil pier off the Chesapeake Bay. It was dusk, snowing and freezing, and in the black water ahead the bay barely rippled.

"If we saw someone out here, we'd stop by and talk to them, ask them what they're doing, where they hail from, ask them whether they're aware it's 25 degrees out," Petty Officer Trey Bennett said.

"Before everything happened," he said, "you'd figure someone was fishing. Now, you look and think, you wonder what he's doing, especially under bridges."

This, in its rawest form, is homeland security - an exercise built on patience and endurance that repeats itself 24 hours a day in the waters off Baltimore's harbor and elsewhere along 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline.

With counter-terrorism its new mission, the Coast Guard, known mostly for saving people lost at sea, is poised to become the heart of the new Homeland Security Department, more of a military force than ever in its two-centuries-long history.

Department officials, who fought to gain control of the Coast Guard, are building up the service's weapons, fleet and intelligence capabilities.

They have created Coast Guard SWAT teams that slide down ropes from helicopters and armed "sea marshals" who patrol waterways. And they have passed out new uniforms of black boots and military cargo pants to replace the relaxed blue chinos and rubber-sole shoes that Coast Guardsmen wore for decades.

The Coast Guard, which makes up more than one-fourth of the new department, has been responsible for protecting the nation's coastlines since Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton ordered 10 cutters into the water to enforce tariff laws in 1789.

But now, border security has assumed urgent new importance. And the Coast Guard, as part of the armed services and intelligence apparatus, will lend the Homeland Security Department much-needed muscle.

That's because the department, which is made up of 22 agencies, has little independent authority. It relies on the CIA, FBI, the National Security Agency and others for intelligence and depends on state and local law enforcement to act on its threat warnings.

The Coast Guard is the department's one exception. Fast becoming the department's own mini-army, the Coast Guard will soon have enhanced abilities to collect its own intelligence and respond to chemical or biological attacks with its own trained teams. It will have more resources for its boats, planes, helicopters and even armed SUVs.

What's more, those stepped-up duties are controlled directly by Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security.

Ridge said recently that the Coast Guard is "probably one of the most undervalued and under-appreciated assets in this federal government," stressing, as he often does, that the Guard is leading the way in homeland security.

Not since the 1930s has the Coast Guard been this popular, said the Guard's historian, Dr. Robert Browning.

"We were in the news constantly because of the rum runners," Browning said, referring to the efforts to stem illegal alcohol during Prohibition. "There were children's books and all kinds of books written.

"Now," he said, the Coast Guard "is the one agency they can visually see protecting people. It gives people a sense of security."

It's an image Ridge wants to capitalize on. This year, under his department, the Coast Guard is slated to receive its largest budget increase since World War II.

Its higher profile is a stark change for an agency that for more than five decades suffered through budget shortages and, despite its presence in World War II and the Vietnam War, was often overlooked as the fifth member of the armed services.

Coast Guard employees - or Coasties as they call themselves - know the standard Navy joke: The Coast Guard never worries about sinking because it can just wade back to shore.

Even as it has tended to be overlooked, the Coast Guard has enjoyed one of the longest-running positive public images for any federal agency - that of heroic saviors barreling through a hurricane behind a thick orange stripe, risking their lives to save someone else's.

That image has carried over to the fishing industry. The Coast Guard has built a reputation for keeping the playing fields fair through its patrols of national fisheries, ensuring they are not looted in off-hours or depleted of young fish.

One of its strengths has been its ability to juggle multiple responsibilities. On average each day, according to the Coast Guard, it saves 10 lives, conducts 109 search and rescue missions, seizes $9.6 million in illegal drugs, patrols dozens of fisheries and responds to 20 oil or hazardous chemical spills.

Funding shortfalls in recent years have also meant that the coxswain who drives a boat and leads a crew is also the one who fixes the boat when it breaks and suits up to handle a chemical or oil spill when a tanker ruptures.

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