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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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