Coast Guard defends policy

Low-priority ships given notice of searches


WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard said yesterday that in situations where the likelihood of security threats is considered low, it sometimes alerts captains of arriving ships of an impending search.

The practice is meant to reduce delays and the expense of paying workers to wait unnecessarily to unload cargo, it said.

The Coast Guard has a system for setting search priorities, officials said, which results in some ships being searched with little or no notice.

Coast Guard officials were responding to a story in The New York Times on yesterday that questioned the policy of notifying ships before a search.

Officials discounted the notion that every search must be a surprise to be effective. "Sometimes we will board low-priority ships," said Coast Guard Lt. Tony Migliorini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-Long Beach sector. "We are trying to assist them. It does not hamper our security mission, because we will be able to search where we need to search regardless."

"Twenty-four hours is the maximum amount of warning that we give. Sometimes we give them just a few minutes. Sometimes it's a few hours.

"This has been our process since 9/11," Migliorini said.

Usually, the ships are searched at sea when they are nearing port, officials said.

A full search may delay its arrival by hours or as much as a day, they said. A boarding party from the Coast Guard may go aboard to check the crew and the cargo, sometimes with the use of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Coast Guard has stepped up its searches of ships entering U.S. ports, but officials emphasized that the Coast Guard has a variety of reasons for checking inbound vessels, not all of them related to security.

"The mission objective of each foreign vessel examination or boarding is carefully measured to accomplish an achievable end. This mission objective might be enhanced by the withholding of information from ship management or by the sharing of information with ship management," Cmdr. Paul D. Thorne, chief of the Coast Guard's Foreign and Offshore Vessels Division, said in a statement issued yesterday.

"The discretion of information sharing is largely, but not solely, within the hands of the captain of the port and may not present a uniformity on a national scale," the statement said.

Federal officials responsible for port security have long sought to develop systems for focusing on likely threats and at the same time identifying shippers that appear to pose relatively low threats. They have also acknowledged that it was not feasible to disrupt the transportation system on which major segments of the U.S. economy depend.

In striking this balance, officials indicated, they try to avoid imposing additional costs and delays on shippers when security concerns are low.

One such effort involves reducing dockside costs that can be increased by a surprise search.

"The longshoremen are union, and as soon as they show up, they start getting paid. So the shipping lines are shelling out money," Long Beach Coast Guard spokesman Migliorini said.

"There is a great relationship between industry and the Coast Guard," added Chief Daniel Tremper, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington.

David Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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