Coast Guard could hire 1,000 new sea marshals under House bill

The Coast Guard could hire 1,000 new sea marshals under legislation introduced last week by Rep. John Cooksey, R-La. Sea marshals board and inspect ships that are 12 miles or more offshore to make sure they are safe to enter port. The Coast Guard's captain of the port in San Francisco hatched the sea marshal concept after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 as a way to control the movement of ships arriving at U.S. ports. Presently, the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have armed sea marshals. The ports of New York and Boston don't have sea marshals, but have been escorting some ships to port by armed personnel, according to Coast Guard spokesman Capt. Mike Lapinski. Cooksey's bill (H.R. 3432) would require the Coast Guard to place sea marshals at the nation's 20 most vulnerable ports as determined by the Transportation Department. The service could then distribute the rest of the 1,000 marshals as it sees fit to ports around the country. Additional marshals are needed to protect more ports and to allow Coast Guard personnel to return to other missions, such as fisheries law enforcement. These missions have received less attention than before Sept. 11, according to Cooksey. "The Coast Guard estimates that there has been an approximately 25 percent reduction in drug interdiction and an even greater reduction of fisheries law enforcement since Sept. 11 because of its other duties," said Cooksey. "So the Guard needs the extra 1,000 persons my bill would provide." Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy told Cooksey he would "absolutely" accept more sea marshals at a Dec. 6 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. But Loy added that sea marshals could eventually wind up in the Transportation Security Administration if Transportation Department officials decide the new agency should have an operational role in port security. "There may be some day when sea marshals don't have to be in Coast Guard uniforms," he told lawmakers. After the hearing, Loy ruled out transferring other Coast Guard employees to the new agency because they carry out missions besides security. While lawmakers view the sea marshal program as a success, it is just one piece in the Coast Guard's larger strategy to fill gaping holes in security at the nation's 361 ports. The service is trying to create new relationships with intelligence agencies to improve the analysis of maritime security data. "We want to create a whole level of subordinate-level working relationships that don't exist now," said Lapinski. The Coast Guard is also looking for ways to improve scrutiny of shipping containers, since the lead agency for cargo inspection, the U.S. Customs Service, currently inspects only about 2 percent of the 600,000 containers that enter U.S. ports every day. "Eventually we have to face the music on the containers. Right now a container is a dumb steel box," Loy said at the hearing. The Coast Guard needs to use electronic tracking to tell when containers have been opened, he said. Port and rail security legislation sponsored by Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would give Customs $15 million to buy more screening machines for cargo inspection, but the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Customs employees, said the agency simply needs more agents. At the port of New Orleans, the number of Customs inspectors has dropped from 103 in 1970 to 29 this year, said Argent Acosta, a Customs agent who is also president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 168, at a Dec. 6 hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Cooksey will try to add his sea marshal bill to a House counterpart to the Hollings-McCain port security bill, but may also push it independently, said Baird Webel, legislative director for Cooksey. Cooksey's office has no estimate of what it would cost to hire 1,000 new sea marshals.
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