DHS Cruise Ship Protection Efforts Given High Marks

By Stew Magnuson
Cruise ships have been the targets of terrorist actions in the past, most notably the 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro, which resulted in the death of American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.

Since then, there have been few incidents, and in a 12 month period from April 2009 to April 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported that there have been no known cruise-ship plots detected. That doesn’t mean that they don’t remain attractive, “high-prestige” targets, GAO said in a report, “Varied Actions Taken to Enhance Cruise Ship Security, but Some Concerns Remain.”

There are some 9.3 million passengers departing from 30 U.S. ports every year on about 3,900 cruises. The largest ship holds about 8,500 customers and crew members. Israel foiled a plot against one of its cruise ships in 2005 and pirates off the coast of Somalia have made three unsuccessful attempts to take control of cruises, GAO noted. The economic impact of an attack in or around U.S. waters could severely damage the cruise ship industry, which was worth $19.1 billion to the U.S. economy in 2008, the report said.

GAO, in a departure from most of its Department of Homeland Security reports, had little criticism for DHS. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration have responsibilities in ensuring the security of cruise ships, with the Coast Guard serving as the lead agency.

The Coast Guard provides ship escorts and oversees companies’ compliance with security plans. CBP reviews documents of passengers arriving from foreign ports and inspects baggage. TSA provides screening equipment.

“Despite the lack of evidence identifying recent threats, maritime intelligence officials identified the presence of terrorist groups that have the capability to attack a cruise ship,” the report said.

Waterborne improvised explosive devices remain a concern among security experts, particularly small boats laden with bombs similar to the one that blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Cruise ships often operate in areas where there are numerous small boats that are not scrutinized as often as larger vessels, the report noted. An armed takeover patterned on the Achille Lauro case is another possibility ships must be on guard against, as well as a biological attack where food or water is poisoned, the report noted.

GAO only had one recommendation. It suggested that CBP conduct a study on whether it would be feasible for cruise ship companies to share passenger data with the DHS prior to a ship’s departure. Information collected at the time of a reservation is now routinely shared by the airline industry, but not for cruise ship passengers, it noted.

Topics: Homeland Security, Deepwater, MaritimePort Security

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