Published February 23, 2006
Who's in charge of security at U.S. seaports?
There's no simple answer to that question — a critical part of the debate over the takeover of major port operations by a United Arab Emirates company
All seaports are different and the biggest ones are complex. Responsibility for security is spread among government agencies: the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, terminal operators and state and local port authorities.
The Homeland Security Department said over a year ago that confusion about responsibility had delayed a cargo security plan.
"During the two years since DHS was established, this has frequently led to questions of 'who's in charge?"' said a draft of the plan, released in December 2004.
Even now, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the Bush administration doesn't take port security seriously.
"It has consistently submitted inadequate funding requests and has routinely missed critical security deadlines that were required by law," he said.
The administration says it has strengthened port security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, pointing to increased funding and new security technology.
Customs and Border Protection oversees the cargo that arrives in more than 20,000 shipping containers that pass through U.S. ports daily.
The Coast Guard approves security plans for 10,000 ships and 5,000 port facilities. Since July 1, 2004, the Coast Guard has been responsible for making sure those plans are carried out.
The nation's larger ports have dozens of separate facilities within them, including oil refineries, warehouses, fuel farms, power plants and factories.
The terminal operator is responsible for security at its own terminal and the area within the port where cargo is loaded, unloaded or transferred, according to the Homeland Security Department.
UAE-based Dubai Ports World would operate some of the terminals at a half-dozen of the nation's largest seaports: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Newark, N.J.
"They're required to have a security plan," said Dennis Murphy, former Customs port director at the Port of Norfolk and former Homeland Security spokesman.
The plan has to include security measures such as lighting, fencing, locks and background checks on employees, he said.
"They have to know who the people are who they're hiring," Murphy said.
A fact sheet from the Homeland Security Department said that the "people working on the docks" and security personnel would not change under the pending deal.
Murphy said the entire supply chain is scrutinized by a number of people — including the buyer, the seller and the shipper along with federal officials — who want to make sure cargo moves where it's supposed to move.
"It's an elaborate ballet of information and machinery," he said. "You don't mess around. If you divert a container here and there, there are investigators who will crawl all over your personal life if they think anything is hinky."
Many port security initiatives since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been the result of laws passed by Congress.
It was the National Maritime Transportation Security Act, passed in November 2002, that put the Coast Guard in charge of tightening port security.