Safer Harbors

From Maine to Texas and up and down the West Coast, the nation's 361 ports have been on high alert since Sept. 11.

And, true to form, the US Coast Guard has quickly and effectively stepped in to help increase security at ports and along coastlines. US-bound ships with more than 300 tons of cargo, for example, now must give the Coast Guard 96 hours' notice, instead of the usual 24. They also must give the Coast Guard more detailed description of cargoes and information about their crews.

Still, although some 95 percent of all goods coming into the US arrive by sea, only an incredibly small percentage (1 or 2 percent) of shipping containers actually are inspected.

The Coast Guard arguably is stretched too thin (see related story, page 2). It cannot sustain this high level of security without more people, money, and equipment. A Department of Transportation inspector general's report, released earlier this month, as well as a recent General Accounting Office report, confirms the need for more resources. For example, some Coast Guard employees have been diverted from other important missions, such as drug interdiction and search-and-rescue operations.

Moreover, 90 percent of Coast Guard crews at search-and-rescue stations work grueling 84-hour-a-week schedules, have outmoded equipment, and need more comprehensive training. On Capitol Hill last week Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy said: "Other important missions are being curtailed, and almost 30 percent of our reservists are on active duty. I am working with my operational commanders to determine ways to sustain this high tempo of operations." That won't be easy.

To do its job effectively, the Coast Guard, like other enforcement agencies, needs flexibility to meet new threats. As Congress considers related legislation, it can keep these points in mind: The Coast Guard needs access to various government databases, including those in State, Defense, and the immigration agencies. And in addition to federalizing airport security screeners, Congress ought to consider federalizing the employees responsible for securing land access to ports. Currently, that access is in private commercial hands.

As the nation strives to maintain its vigilance, a Coast Guard with a force of some 35,000 just isn't enough. That number is less than one-sixth its size during World War II. The Coast Guard also will require closer cooperation with other countries, in order to be able to conduct audits of foreign ports, which often have less security than US ports. Much of that responsibility likely will fall to Coast Guard personnel.

The Coast Guard estimates it is now spending an extra $1 million a day for the increased security. The nation's longest border (95,000 miles of coastline) needs at least as much protection as its land borders.

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