Coast Guard cuts new path in terror war

Guard symbolizes challenges of security-agency merger.

As the Coast Guard patrol boat Halibut escorts a giant cruise ship out of port, vacationers get a first-hand glimpse of America's growing focus on homeland defense.

The factory-fresh cutter is clearing a right-of-way 600 yards wide for the floating, maritime playhouse – until it is safely beyond the breakwater of the nation's largest port.

By stepping up its watch on potential terrorist targets such as cruise liners, the Coast Guard illustrates the promise – but also the challenges – involved in the planned merger of nearly two dozen federal agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security this fall.

Coast Guard crews could benefit from increased staff and funding. Its efforts to collaborate with other agencies could get a boost by joining under one banner.

Questions of oversight

Still, the emphasis on homeland defense may come at a cost. As cruise ships get more attention, it is possible that foreign fish poachers or drug smugglers will get less.

Coast Guard officials say crews like the 10 people aboard the Halibut are accustomed to multitasking. Putting top priority on terrorism won't mean forgetting to rescue storm-tossed boats or clean oil spills, they say. But critics say the legislation leaves some key questions of oversight – especially the balancing of security and nonsecurity duties – unresolved.

"This is a real, major concern for us in the fishing industry," says Zeke Grader, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

"In the 1980s, after the big push for drug interdiction, we saw the [Coast Guard's] search and rescue mission really suffer."

Such concerns are paralleled at several of the 21 other federal agencies that are expected to be folded into the Homeland Security Department.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, traditionally focuses much of its attention on hurricanes and floods, not responding to terrorist acts. And the Secret Service, while focused on safeguarding the president and on securing major events like the Super Bowl, also has major anti-counterfeiting operations.

Congress is still working out details. The House has passed its version, and the Senate will consider the new department in September. But the agency's basic concept enjoys bipartisan support.

Guard already adapting

To some degree, in fact, the legislation will merely be solidifying efforts that are already under way.

With the nation's ports viewed as vulnerable to terror attacks, the Coast Guard has been adapting its priorities since Sept. 11.

In addition to escorting cruise ships, the Guard plans to add a 100-strong force of ever-ready commandos in Long Beach by September.

Nationwide, 11 similar "maritime safety and security teams" will be in place by 2005. In Long Beach, Calif., the agency has also been fine-tuning a command center to communicate better with other port-related agencies, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to Customs and local police.

New funding – an added $750 million in a budget of $5.6 billion – could help the Guard press ahead with such changes while maintaining its nonsecurity duties.

"As important as our homeland security needs are, we cannot abandon the traditional, vital missions of the Coast Guard," says Sen. Ted Stevens, (R) of Alaska. One of a group of Coast Guard supporters on Capitol Hill from coastal and Great Lakes states, Senator Stevens has been trumpeting the importance of search and rescue.

Some observers say that if anyone can fulfill multiple duties, the US Coast Guard can. Perhaps more than any other federal agency, that's what it has done ever since its 1787 birth. "The Coast Guard has always been multitask. No one is more used to it than the Coast Guard," says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A Coast Guard C130 transport helicopter can investigate one boat for terrorist activity, interdict drugs on another, and supply fuel to a third boat that is in distress – all on one outing.

Indeed, others say the Guard's versatility should be capitalized on – not changed – to aid the war on terrorism.

"Coast Guard [units] who are already out on daily patrols [are] very well suited to capture terrorists in their net," says Stephen Flynn, a professor at the US Coast Guard Academy.

The biggest mistake, current Coast Guard leaders say, would be to divide the 35,000-strong force into separate units on beats such as policing or rescue.

"I joined the Coast Guard for search and rescue," says Lt. Shad Thomas, the Halibut's commanding officer. "Yes, we may venture off into bigger territory, but search and rescue will always be key."

How well the Coast Guard juggles its many duties when managed by a new department remains to be seen.

But the determination of people like Lieutenant Thomas, some say, reflects important lessons that the Guard learned during another "war" – one against drugs.

"There were some growing pains in the 1980s after the Coast Guard went through the culture shock of focusing on drug interdiction," says Professor Flynn. "I think they learned a few things about not abandoning their role."

On a typical day, the Coast Guard ...

• Conducts 109 search and rescue missions

• Saves 10 lives.

• Seizes 306 pounds of cocaine and 169 pounds of marijuana.

• Interdicts 14 illegal migrants.

• Responds to 20 oil or hazardous-chemical spills.

• Assists 2,509 commercial ships entering & leaving US ports.

• And more, including buoy tending and boat-safety instruction.

Source: US Coast Guard

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