DHS Will Miss Deadline to Set Up Port Security Hubs
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Every morning, representatives of the Coast Guard, Department of Justice and Customs and Border Protection gather in a meeting room in a secure port facility here to plan the day’s operations.
Joining them at the table are officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, state and local police agencies and port authority officers.
Looking 96 hours into the future, they run down the names and ships due to arrive in the coming days, what kinds of cargo they are moving and if there are any crew members aboard who might be “of interest.” Local police agencies chime in with reports of any suspicious activity that may be occurring in the vicinity.
Project SeaHawk has been carrying out such meetings for more than three years under the leadership of the Justice Department. The overarching goal is to prevent the port from becoming a target of terrorism.
The Safe Port Act passed in Oct. 2006 called for the creation of similar operational centers at “high-priority” ports by October 2009. But one Coast Guard official told National Defense that it will not be possible to meet that deadline. He said the future of SeaHawk and other proposed port security centers is uncertain.
Under SeaHawk, port security officials during the past three years have developed the software, sensors and communications infrastructure needed to maintain a 24/7 watch on this regional port — the sixth largest in the United States based on the amount of customs revenue collected and the numbers of containers arriving each year.
Participants acknowledged that bringing the different agencies together to share information in the early days was a challenge, but they extol the current benefits.
Before SeaHawk, it wasn’t uncommon for the different agencies with jurisdiction in the port to duplicate their efforts, said Capt. Michael McAllister, Coast Guard sector commander and Charleston’s captain of the port.
“My boarding teams would run into Customs boarding teams at the bow of a ship,” he said.
Today, boardings are carried out in a more efficient manner that allows the different agencies to make better use of their limited resources, officials said.
Project leaders in Charleston said most of the technology that was developed for SeaHawk can be transferred to other port security operations centers. Congress mandated the creation of these centers under the Safe Port Act. After October 2009, the centers, including SeaHawk, will fall under the Department of Homeland Security’s purview.
Discussions continue among Justice and DHS officials to work out details on which DHS agency will take charge of the center.
DHS did not request funds to open other centers in the 2008 budget. Congress authorized, and then later earmarked, $60 million in the Coast Guard budget to do so. The Bush administration requested only $1 million in the 2009 budget, signaling its lack of enthusiasm for the concept. The law also required DHS to produce a detailed plan on cost-sharing six months after the law was passed, but it has not done so.
Ted White, command center platform manager at the Coast Guard, said the service will not be able to meet the Safe Port Act requirement that an operational center be stood up at every major port by October 2009.
The $60 million allocated in the 2008 omnibus bill arrived at Coast Guard headquarters in late December, and the service has not yet decided how it will use the funds. But it is clear that this amount of money will not be able to fund operational centers in all 24 Coast Guard sectors. White said he had no knowledge as to why DHS only requested $1 million for the operation centers for the next fiscal year.
As for SeaHawk, the future beyond October 2009 is also murky. “SeaHawk wasn’t stood up with a plan to stand it back down,” said Frank Gutierrez, the project’s deputy director.
The five-year pilot program was to officially come to an end this year, but the South Carolina congressional delegation pushed funding through to ensure its operation until next year when DHS will take over its administration.
“Who’s going to inherit SeaHawk? When do we turn it over? How is it going to be funded? Who’s going to take administrative control of the task force? These are all issues that need to be addressed,” Gutierrez said.
SeaHawk predated the creation of DHS, he explained. When the legislation authorizing the project was passed in 2003, Justice was seen as the best agency to take control, because it had the authority and experience running multi-agency task forces.
After taking about one year to organize, SeaHawk was up and running by January 2005. The FBI’s joint terrorism task force co-located in the center. Construction has also begun to relocate the Coast Guard’s sector command center and CBP’s customs targeting center in the same building.
Also key was bringing local law enforcement agencies into the project, Gutierrez said.
Three local police department jurisdictions touch on the borders of the area’s port facilities — Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant. The South Carolina State Police and the South Carolina Ports Authority police also have representatives in the center.
Local law enforcement participation was seen as crucial, and it remains one of the more difficult issues that have to be resolved if the project is to move forward, he added.
Federal agencies cannot duplicate the “situational awareness” of local cops who patrol just beyond the port’s perimeters. But police departments are chronically short of personnel. It is not uncommon for a local law enforcement agency to have 25 to 30 slots open.
SeaHawk, through Justice Department mechanisms, is able to reimburse the local police departments and pay some of the salaries of their representatives. How these positions will be funded after October 2009 is unclear, Gutierrez said.
White said the formula for participating in operational centers in the future will be simple. If federal agencies or local law enforcement departments want to participate, they will have to pay the salaries of their own personnel. Furthermore, no agency outside of DHS can be compelled to take part in a center.
“If they want to participate, that’s going to be at their own expense,” White said.
Port officials said they believe that the SeaHawk technology could be shared with other centers. One of the project’s most significant accomplishments is the “information portal” software that coordinates the response to each ship approaching the port.
Capt. Scott Beeson, a SeaHawk Coast Guard liaison, explained how ships are now tracked and prioritized. The captain of the port normally receives notification of a ship’s arrival 96 hours in advance. It is then picked up by the Coast Guard’s automatic identification system (AIS), which is a beacon that transmits the ship’s identity and bearing to Coast Guard regional command centers.
Coast Guard radars can then track the ship as it approaches. As this is happening, CBP, Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement data are compiled to create a dossier. The file tells the officer the names of crew members and the cargo manifest. It also provides information about the crew’s port of origin and whether any of them have criminal records. The file contains a history of the ship or the company that owns it — whether it recently changed ownership or flags, and whether it has been caught with contraband before.
The Coast Guard now “has insight into CBP’s targeting and why they think a container or crewman is of interest,” Beeson said.
The software gives each ship a color-coded designation based on risk analysis. Blue would denote a low risk and orange a much higher risk. A SeaHawk officer then clicks on a checklist of possible actions that can be taken. An “admissibility review” is a thorough vetting of the crew. If a boarding is deemed necessary, the center can dispatch CBP canine units that specialize in either drugs or explosives detection.
If both the Coast Guard and CBP are interested in the ship, the center can arrange a joint boarding. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard are two of the biggest players in port security. But they have different databases, sensors and communications systems. They both carry out boardings as ships enter ports, but they may be looking for different items.
As the ship approaches the port, it is captured by long- and medium-range electro-optical and infrared cameras. Some of these cameras belong to the Coast Guard.
The service’s Hawkeye system combines the data from cameras, radar and AIS into a common operating picture. If the ship suddenly veers off course, that would raise a red flag, Beeson said.
SeaHawk has also installed some of its own cameras. It has one atop the USS Yorktown, a decommissioned World War II aircraft carrier, which is now a tourist attraction on the east side of the harbor. It has also fixed cameras under bridges so it can keep watch on pilings.
In addition, it takes feeds from the state’s Department of Transportation cameras that monitor bridges and roads around the port area.
A local chemical company plant, with a facility close to the water, has also agreed to let SeaHawk use its camera feeds.
Added to this mélange is data from the tracking devices that are placed on every Coast Guard, CBP, port police and local law enforcement vehicle.
Project SeaHawk funded the deployment of radiological sensors that are affixed to small boats and vehicles. Gutierrez was reluctant to discuss details on the system, but said the sensors can be placed next to ships or containers to pick up signs of radiation. “They are amazingly sensitive,” he said. The vehicles carrying these sensors have cameras that can send back streaming video to SeaHawk terminals.
Like most modern operation centers, all these cameras, sensors and tracking systems are displayed on a series of monitors spread along a wall.
Kelly Shackelford, director of the project’s task force, said “the ability of all those agencies to come together to use their resources is what we’re all about. It really does allow us to make better decisions on how to use the resources.”
Much of this information technology infrastructure can be exported to other startup operational centers, Gutierrez said. Sixty-seven percent of SeaHawk’s budget during the past five years has gone towards developing the center’s technological backbone.
“We were able to do the 85 percent solution for them to be able to pick it up and run with it,” he said. The information portal software has already been adopted by the Coast Guard’s captains of the ports.
Each port is different, he pointed out, which requires individual adjustments. A communications system that works in Charleston may not work in New Orleans, where the Mississippi River makes the geography, and the jurisdictions dramatically different from Charleston. Ports in Florida may have more concerns with drugs and illegal immigration.
SeaHawk officials declined to provide details on counterterrorism operations because the incidents are classified. But one false alarm did demonstrate how the center works.
A gate guard one day noticed a strange contraption hanging off the end of a container leaving the port by truck. He thought, “Oh my God, what is this on the back of this container? It’s got to be the timing device for a nuclear weapon,” Gutierrez said.
Immediately, SeaHawk declared a level two maritime security alert, which shut down the port. Explosive ordnance disposal teams arrived on the scene within minutes.
They determined that the device was a weather balloon instrument that had fallen on a ship somewhere out at sea and wrapped itself around the container. The port reopened 90 minutes after the guard radioed in the report.
That short recovery time is critical because every hour a port is closed damages the local economy, Gutierrez said. South Carolina ports move $53 billion worth of cargo per year.
Chris Berardini, chief of staff for Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., said SeaHawk should be viewed as the flagship for the next generation of interagency port security operation centers. But he acknowledged that future centers may not be as robust as SeaHawk. There is a chance, however, that Seahawk’s capabilities will be reduced after it transitions to DHS control in October 2009.
“We would like it to be scaled down as little as possible,” he said.
A funding crunch and the lack of physical infrastructure to host operations centers at some ports could lead to the creation of “virtual” command centers, rather than brick-and-mortar hubs, said White.
A broader question is whether the SeaHawk model could be adopted nationwide. That seems doubtful.
Not all ports have Charleston’s emphasis on container security, White said. He repeated the Coast Guard maxim that “if you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port.”
SeaHawk is a “good pilot project, but it is very Charleston-centric right now,” he said.
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