Coast Guard seeks budget boost for port security

Securing the nation's ports has been a major focus of the Coast Guard since Sept. 11, and will continue to be for years to come, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy told Congress Thursday. The service plans to devote a quarter of its resources to homeland security over the next three years, Loy said at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on the Coast Guard. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard has put nearly 60 percent of its resources into port security, in contrast to 1 percent before the attacks. "We'll probably never get below [devoting] 20 to 25 percent of our organization to homeland security in the foreseeable future," Loy told lawmakers. To support this new mission, Loy joined Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in asking Congress to fully fund the administration's request for $203 million in Coast Guard funding from the $20 billion Congress has earmarked for emergency terrorism spending. The House has proposed spending $143 million on port security, while the Senate has offered $285 million. "We're hoping we'll get closer to the Senate side in terms of the numbers," said Mineta. Since Sept. 11, the Coast Guard has stepped up its counterterrorism operations by establishing port and coastline patrols, increasing the 24-hour Notice of Arrival requirement for ships to 96 hours, and creating a sea marshals program, but Mineta said more needs to be done. Coast Guard Captains of the Port will form local port security committees to conduct security assessments and devise security plans, he said. The administration will also seek expanded legal authority to check foreign ports, extend the Coast Guard's jurisdiction of vessels from three miles offshore to 12, place new criminal penalties for weapon use and maritime terrorism, and power to license natural gas facilities. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., are attempting to get the Senate to schedule a vote on a joint rail and port security bill that contains most of the authorities the administration wants. The administration is expected to endorse major aspects of the bill, although it is still working out some issues with the Office of Management and Budget, congressional sources said. During a separate hearing Thursday on seaport security before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, senators charged the nation's seaports are the weakest link in the U.S. transportation system and "extremely vulnerable" to terrorist attacks. Chairman Joseph Leiberman, D-Conn., called the situation "terrifying," and said maritime experts had presented "a harrowing picture" of unsecure seaports and uninspected cargo. "Most Americans would be surprised to discover there is no unified federal plan for overseeing the security of the international borders at our seaports," said Hollings. Lieberman expressed surprise federal agencies are "still not sharing threat assessments." Maritime experts testified that some 12 million shipping containers move through ports annually and could contain nuclear, chemical, biological or other terrorist weapons. Since few containers are inspected, "this leaves our ports extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks," said Lieberman.
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