Port security clearance lags for non-feds

GAO says the Coast Guard doesn't process security clearances quickly enough because it doesn't understand its role in educating stakeholders.

U.S. seaport security stakeholders are not receiving the necessary security clearances to get useful and timely information from the federal government, possibly hampering their ability to deter, prevent and respond to a terrorist attack, a congressional investigation revealed yesterday.

In a new report released May 17, Government Accountability Office officials said Coast Guard officials, who coordinate maritime information-sharing efforts, are not processing security clearances quickly enough for state, local and industry stakeholders. According to the report, they didn't realize their role in educating those stakeholders about the process. The Coast Guard also hasn't used its database to track applications for security clearances nationwide, the report states.

Federal information about port security includes vulnerability assessments and information about potential threats. That national security information is classified and cannot be released unless the intended recipients have undergone background checks to receive security clearances.

"By February 2005 -- or over 4 months after the Coast Guard had developed a list of over 350 nonfederal area maritime security committee participants with a need for a security clearance -- 28 had submitted the necessary paperwork for the background check," the report states.

The GAO report acknowledges the creation of maritime security committees, which include representatives from the various stakeholder groups and serve as a forum for sharing information. Although the report states that the committees are an improvement compared with previous information-sharing efforts, they "primarily provide information through meetings, documents and other means that are often used for long-term planning purposes rather than day-to-day operations."

Among GAO’s recommendations, the Coast Guard needs to raise awareness of the security clearance procedures to nonfederal stakeholders. They should emulate the FBI’s efforts after bureau officials found that local officials didn’t understand the process. The Coast Guard should also use its database as a management tool to monitor applications and identify certain ports with slow progress.

Homeland Security Department officials generally agreed with the findings and recommendations and said Coast Guard officials are making changes to the security clearance process to strengthen information sharing. They said progress is under way in other areas of information sharing and among other federal agencies with an interest in port security.

The GAO report also indicated there are three interagency operational centers that allow for greater information sharing because they operate around-the-clock and receive real-time data from sources such as radars and sensors. The Coast Guard is planning to develop sector command centers at 40 additional port locations to monitor information, but the relationship between the interagency operational centers and sector command centers hasn’t been determined.

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