Ship captains tipped to `surprise' boardings

Coast Guard procedures vary from port to port

May 20, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Under intense pressure from shipping companies concerned about costly delays, the Coast Guard is tipping off some large commercial ships about security searches that had been a surprise, high-ranking Coast Guard officials said.

The searches began after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of a major revamping of the Coast Guard and its new anti-terrorism mission. But shipping companies say the surprise boardings at sea cause unnecessary delays, costing up to $40,000 an hour.

"We're trying to facilitate commerce and keep the port secure - and sometimes the two conflict," said Capt. Paul E. Wiedenhoeft, who is in charge of the port complex at Los Angeles and Long Beach. "When possible, we're trying to give shippers as much notice as we can."

The practice has caused considerable confusion and debate within the Coast Guard.

Commanders in some ports acknowledged in interviews that they provided up to 24 hours' notice. Others said the practice undermined the inspections.

Even within the command at some ports, there was disagreement about the best approach. The port captain in San Francisco, Capt. William J. Uberti, said shippers were "not supposed to have a clue" about possible random boardings. Yet his security chief said the command gave shippers notice.

A typical search involves checking the crew and cargo manifests against those filed with the ports. Sea marshals check identification cards against the faces of crew members. They sometimes arrive with bomb-sniffing dogs and inspect with hand-held radiation detectors. Depending on the circumstances, a review can last a half-hour or a half-day, officials said.

Capt. Frank Sturm, a top policy official at headquarters in Washington, said the national policy on the boardings was fluid, depending on the presence of reasonable suspicions. Sturm said he could not provide details of how many ships were given notice, in which ports or under what circumstances.

"In some cases," he said, "it would not surprise me to tell a captain of a ship in advance."

Another Coast Guard official in Washington, Cmdr. Paul D. Thorne, said the practice had not compromised security.

"Threats are being adeptly managed by local captains of the port," said Thorne.

But critics worry that the practice could undermine an important component of the layered security effort to keep terrorists out of the nation's longest border, more than 96,000 miles of coastline.

"The purpose of the inspections is for the Coast Guard to send a message to all these ships that they might be boarded at any time, basically to make sure there's no mischief on board," said Stephen E. Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you say, `Heads up, when you get close to port in two days we're going to board you,' that sort of defeats the purpose of the boarding."

A spokesman for the Coast Guard in New York agreed, saying that nearly 1,000 boats a year were boarded for security reasons in the ports of New York and New Jersey and that all the inspections were a surprise.

"If they're from a foreign port and trying to get into the United States, they should know they might get boarded - without warning," said the spokesman, Mike Lutz.

Since the middle of last year, the Coast Guard nationally has boarded more than 16,000 vessels and found numerous violations, most related to safety or the crew status. In 144 cases, the vessels were temporarily held back from anchoring in American ports, the Coast Guard said, without giving more details.

Shippers consider the inspections a nuisance because they delay the delivery of goods, and suggest that the notice allows them to make more efficient use of the inspection time. Critics, however, suggest that the notice also gives a heads-up to potential terrorists, who could use the time to conceal evidence, create diversions or possibly even find a way off a ship.

Complaints about gaping holes in security have continued since Sept. 11 and were heightened when a Dubai company planned to run five ports. People who work at the water's edge and outside experts say a larger concern is an overburdened Coast Guard charged with protecting 361 ports, with more than 60,000 ship calls a year, while trying to overhaul its culture and focus.

For the Coast Guard, "it's been culture change with a capital C," said M.R. Dinsmore, executive director of the Port of Seattle. "They're trying mightily to adapt, but they don't have the resources."

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