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Coast Guard warns ships of inspections

Spokesman: Units must balance between protection, commerce

From Kathleen Koch
CNN

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Chief Warrant Officer Mark Gregory, left, walks with a crew member of a ship at the Port of Oakland in 2004.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Coast Guard sometimes alerts large commercial ships they will be searched as they approach port so as not to burden shipping companies financially, the Coast Guard acknowledged to CNN on Saturday.

The New York Times first reported the story earlier in the day, saying that commanders of some ports provided up to 24 hours notice to ships to keep commerce moving.

At the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach in California, the Coast Guard gives as much notice as it can, said Lt. Tony Migliorini, a spokesman for the port. "It's kind of a balancing act," he told CNN.

Commanders especially give notice of dockside safety inspections, so that shipping companies don't have their longshoremen on the dock with nothing to do until the inspection is complete, Migliorini said.

Even during boardings at sea, the port typically notifies ship management in advance that the Coast Guard is coming aboard, Migliorini said.

Migliorini said the Coast Guard boards vessels for a variety of security and safety reasons.

Those safety reasons include cross-checking crew and cargo lists with those with the port, as well as allowing dogs to sniff for bombs and to check for radiation, officials told The New York Times. The searches can last between 30 minutes and 12 hours, the paper reported.

Former Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephen Flynn, a critic of tipping off ships, told The New York Times it was counterproductive to give notice. "If you say, 'heads up, when you get close to port in two days we're going to board you,' that sort of defeats the purpose of boarding," he told the paper.

The Coast Guard gives little specific information about its homeland security mission, other than that it "is at a heightened state of alert protecting more than 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline," according to the Coast Guard Web site.

It states that in addition to protecting against the infiltration of illegal drugs, aliens, firearms and weapons of mass destruction, the Coast Guard also protects "ports, the flow of commerce, and the marine transportation system from terrorism."

There are few details of the Coast Guard's port security mission, other than an explanation that its port security units are "staffed primarily with selected reservists" who "provide waterborne and limited land-based protection for shipping and critical port facilities," according to the Web site.

In a statement released Saturday, Cmdr. Paul Thorne, chief of the Coast Guard's Foreign and Offshore Vessels Division, said that whether the mission is safety, security or just a random check, "this mission objective might be enhanced by the withholding of information from ship management or by the sharing of information with ship management."

Notice varies from port to port

The decision on whether to notify a vessel and under what circumstances is left up to the port captain, and varies from port to port, Thorne said.

A Coast Guard spokesman in New York said all vessels boarded for security reasons there undergo surprise inspections, according to The New York Times.

"If they're from a foreign port and trying to get into the United States, they should know they might get boarded -- without warning," Mike Lutz told the paper.

However, The Times reported that though the port security chief in San Francisco, California, said vessels get notice, Capt. William J. Uberti of the port told the paper that shippers and carriers were "not supposed to have a clue" about random boardings.

There are currently 45 port captains overseeing the nation's 361 ports, Coast Guard spokesman Daniel L. Temper said.

Port security has been a hot topic since the furor arising over a President Bush-backed proposal in February to allow the British company P&O to transfer management operations at six ports to a UAE state-owned company, DP World.

The deal was widely criticized, especially after the Coast Guard warned in a report of "intelligence gaps concerning the potential for DPW or P&O assets to support terrorist operations that precludes an overall threat assessment of the potential merger."

DP World eventually relented and said it was transferring the management operations to a U.S. entity.

Boarding and searching ships has always been part of the duties of the Coast Guard, even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Coast Guard officials say that since then, a larger percentage of the boardings are security-related.

CNN's Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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