DHS falling short on small vessel security, IG says

DHS officials agreed with some — but not all — of the criticisms

The Homeland Security Department doesn't have an effective strategy or technologies in place to protect against terrorists arriving by small boats along the country’s coastlines, according to a new report from DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner.

As evidence of the urgency of the threat, the report notes that terrorists used small vessels to bomb USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and to slip into India for attacks in Mumbai in 2008, among other incidents.

Although DHS released its Small Vessel Security Strategy in April 2008 to address such threats along U.S. coasts, Skinner said the strategy is not effective and needs to be revamped. His report was published Oct. 2.

The strategy lacks certain necessary features, including performance measures, associated costs and staffing needs, and accountability and oversight frameworks, Skinner wrote.

“DHS has not provided a comprehensive strategy for addressing small vessel threats,” the report states. “Neither its Small Vessel Security Strategy nor its draft Implementation Plan effectively addresses all the desirable characteristics and elements of a national strategy.”

DHS officials agreed with some aspects of the assessment and acknowledged that their strategy does not include performance measures or cost estimates.

Skinner also said the technology programs that support the small vessel strategy — including call tracking for situational awareness, information sharing and access to databases — aren't fully effective. He criticized several programs DHS uses to implement the small vessel strategy and recommended that they be reviewed to see if they work.

The programs include America’s Waterway Watch, which allows the public to report suspicious behavior; the Pleasure Boat Reporting System, which boaters from foreign countries use to report their arrivals at U.S. ports; the Citizen’s Action Network, in which interested boaters can help with homeland security; and the Coast Guard’s Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement database.

Skinner said DHS distributed informational brochures about America’s Waterway Watch to only 440,000 of an estimated 13 million registered boaters. An additional 1 million boaters were expected to receive the information when they renewed their boat registrations. “Therefore, the Coast Guard may not have reached out to more than 90 percent of the estimated registered boaters,” Skinner wrote.

Senior DHS officials took issue with those criticisms, saying they go beyond the scope of the IG's audit.

“The Office of Inspector General’s assertion that some of these programs, to include America’s Waterway Watch, are ineffective is unsubstantiated and is beyond the scope of this audit,” wrote David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at DHS; Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant; and Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, in their response to the draft report.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 6, 2009 Race

A determined enemy will always find a way in. As an ex-Coastie I can tell you that securing our coastlines against a repeat of the Mumbai attack is well nigh impossible. About the only thing that would work at all is to institute armed beach patrols as was done in WWII, but in our litigation-happy society I really don't see that happening. Skinner should stick to bean counting.

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