Coast Guard must ramp up security, acquisition efforts, senators say

The Coast Guard should accelerate efforts to protect U.S. seaports from terrorism and move ahead on its $11 billion Deepwater acquisition project, senators from coastal states said Wednesday.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, called on the Coast Guard to speed up security assessments of seaports and said she would try to increase funding for Deepwater, the service's 30-year upgrade of its offshore fleet, so the project could be finished in 10 years.

"I think we clearly have to place this on an accelerated timetable," Snowe told Coast Guard Commandant Thomas Collins at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere and Fisheries, which she chairs. Collins said he was pleased with the administration's fiscal 2004 budget request of $500 million for Deepwater, and said the program could adapt to fluctuations in funding.

"That's a lot of money by Coast Guard standards," he said.

Collins also sought to assure senators that recent Coast Guard deployments to the Persian Gulf have not hurt the service's ability to protect the nation's 361 domestic seaports. Eight 110-foot patrol boats and four port security units have been sent to the Gulf as part of the U.S. military buildup in the Middle East. But the service can tap 11 Navy ships to help with port security and increase the missions of other Coast Guard fleets to replace ships sent overseas, according to Collins.

"It's a quid pro quo with the Navy in sharing assets to do the nation's bidding," said Collins.

Nevertheless, several senators expressed concern that the Coast Guard lacks the resources to adequately protect U.S. seaports. Just last week, four armed members of the Cuban border patrol docked in Key West, Fla., and walked into town before they were stopped. The four men, who were attempting to defect to the United States, evaded a Coast Guard patrol, Collins said.

Senators also worried that the Coast Guard's pace for grading the vulnerability of U.S. seaports is too slow, given heightened terrorism concerns. The service plans to evaluate 55 ports within five years and has finished 15 vulnerability assessments so far, Collins said. The Coast Guard has tapped defense contractor TRW to perform the security assessments.

The Coast Guard's move from the Transportation Department to the new Homeland Security Department also presents management challenges, JayEtta Hecker, director of physical infrastructure at the General Accounting Office, said at the hearing. Hecker urged the Coast Guard to set performance measures for port security and its other homeland security missions, which now absorb just under half of all Coast Guard resources, according to Collins.

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