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U.S. Coast Guard Hopes to Improve Security at Ports



The Department of Defense and federal agents investigating the Sept. 11 hijackings of four airliners believe they were just one part of an "asymmetrical" campaign of terror against the United States that could include assaults on the nation's ports.

Indeed, an inbound ship controlled by a terrorist team could pose threats to the port and the region: They could be used as battering rams against bridge-tunnels or blow themselves up near naval or civilian targets.

The Coast Guard and other agencies charged with protecting the port are considering a number of terrorist scenarios in order to best combat them. Here, as nationwide, the Coast Guard implemented new port security measures in the wake of last week's attacks.

In accordance with the procedures, Coast Guard, Customs and Immigration officers on Tuesday morning boarded an inbound gasoline tanker, the Liberian-flagged East Siberian Sea, 13 miles offshore to ensure the ship was not a threat.

The 13-member party boarded the ship, forbidden to enter the port since Friday, because the tanker's load of gasoline, bound for the Amoco refinery in Yorktown, could have wrought significant havoc if a stowaway or rogue crewman had blown it up in the harbor.

The port's heightened state of security employs a multilayered approach that begins days before a ship is scheduled to arrive. Inbound ships -- the harbor gets 13 per day, on average -- are required to send their cargo manifests to U.S. Customs, and their manifests, crew rosters and itineraries to the Coast Guard.

Customs inspectors typically scrutinize manifests for odd items, such as containers packed with "miscellaneous cargo" or cargo being moved by shipping companies with reputations for smuggling or terrorist associations, or consignees -- the people who will ultimately pick up the cargo -- with criminal histories or infamous reputations.

The agency's Norfolk port director, Mark Laria, would not say what additional steps Customs is taking now, other than Customs is operating at its highest level of alert and is prepared for sustained, intensive anti-terrorism operations. Nor would the Coast Guard describe what it is doing with the manifest, rosters and other information.

However, it appears the agencies are running manifests through databases of dubious shippers and cargo origins, and comparing the rosters with watch lists.

If any flags arise during the initial screening, the Coast Guard's captain of the port, the chief official for ensuring port safety, will deny the vessel permission to enter the harbor.

That's what happened Friday when the East Siberian Sea approached from St. Croix.

Given the ship's Liberian registry, a notorious flag in terms of compliance with safety and other regulations, and the volatility of its cargo, Captain of the Port Capt. Larry Brooks ordered the ship to anchor offshore until it could be boarded and inspected.

Upon the captain's order, the Coast Guard notified the ship, its agent and the Virginia Pilot Association that the vessel had been barred entry.

No foreign ship can legally enter the port without a pilot at the helm, and it's unlikely a foreign ship could manage the channel navigation on its own.

Seas were too high during the weekend for the ship to be boarded, so on Tuesday a boarding party comprised of four armed Coast Guardsmen, four Customs agents, one agent from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and four members of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office made the trek offshore aboard the Coast Guard cutter Dependable.

Armed primarily with 25 mm and .50-caliber machine guns, Dependable is one of three 210-foot cutters now assigned to patrol the Hampton Roads harbor.

The cutters -- one 13 miles out at Chesapeake Bay light, one at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and one at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel -- are on duty around the clock to prevent a vessel from entering the harbor if it has been denied permission.

The boarding party spent six hours aboard the tanker and eventually cleared it for entry to the port, said Jerry Crooks, spokesman for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office Hampton Roads.

"I can't talk about the specifics of what they did," Crooks said, "but certainly they reviewed the crew, the cargo list and examined the vessel."

Once a ship is cleared for entry, a Virginia pilot guides it into the harbor. Inside the harbor, there are new security zones around naval vessels.

The naval vessel protective zones extend 500 yards around Navy ships. All vessels within 500 yards of a Navy ship must reduce speed to the minimum speed necessary for navigation and must obey directions issued by Coast Guard or Navy patrols in the area.

No vessel is allowed to come within 100 yards of a Navy ship unless it has permission from the patrols, and any ship that needs to come inside the 100 yard zone must contact the patrols on VHF-FM Channel 16 beforehand.

If the patrols do not first use force against errant boaters, the penalty for violating the protective zone is a class D felony punishable by up to six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and possible seizure of the boat.

Pilots, commercial vessel operators and pleasure boaters are expected to comply.

The Coast Guard has conceived of scenarios in which rogue crewmen hijack a commercial vessel from the pilot's control and try to use it as a weapon against targets within the harbor.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the pilots will discuss their contingency plans other than to say such plans now exist.

"There are some things we're doing, but for the sake of national defense, I don't want to talk about it other than that we're working with the Coast Guard and the Navy," said Capt. Bill Cofer, president of the Virginia Pilot Association.

Other nefarious scenarios being considered by security planners do not presume terrorist control of the vessel -- a terrorist shipper could simply send a shipping container full of explosives or other hazardous material through the port and onto an inland destination.

The U.S. Customs Service is responsible for ensuring that the latter scenario does not happen.

By the time an inbound container ship pulls alongside the pier, Customs will have the serial numbers of the boxes it wants to examine. Customs screens shipping containers using truck-mounted gamma X-ray machines called Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems,. Suspicious containers are then opened for inspection.

Under normal circumstances, Customs looks in about one in 20 containers -- 95 percent of imports are approved for entry based on what the manifests say are inside.

Customs officials would not say if they have increased the inspection rate.

On the land side of port operations, port police are performing identification checks on persons entering state-owned marine terminals and are inspecting some inbound containers.

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To see more of the The Virginian-Pilot, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pilotonline.com

(c) 2001, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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