- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

Homeland security officials have long been concerned about the vulnerability of ports and ships to terrorists. Yesterday, an important step was taken toward reducing those vulnerabilities, but additional steps may be necessary.

The new security requirements that took effect yesterday mirror the dictate of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who said in a recent speech, “shipping is a global industry; terrorism is a global problem; and our collective security requires a global solution.” As such, the rules have both domestic and international components, although they prescribe essentially the same things. U.S. regulations are set out in the Port and Maritime Security Act of 2001 and the international rules are described in the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which is governed by the U.N.-controlled International Maritime Organization. About 150 countries, accounting for 98 percent of gross merchant shipping tonnage, have signed the international treaty.

Under the rules, all ships must tighten security by carrying a security officer, displaying identification clearly and restricting access to the engine room and bridge. Also, ships headed for U.S. ports will have to alert authorities 96 hours before arrival. Ports have also been required to tighten security by devising a security plan. Eventually, all cargo will have to be sent through radiation detectors.

Shipping companies have been cooperating closely with the Coast Guard, and, as a consequence, few were non-compliant. Foreign ships are a greater concern since the U.N. maritime agency has no enforcement powers. Instead, it relies on the implicit economic threat of noncomplying ships being delayed or even denied port privileges by treaty signatories. Security plans for more than 80 percent of the signatories had been filed, and, as of Wednesday, about 53 percent of ships subject to the international treaty had been certified as compliant.

Still of concern is a General Accounting Office report published last month that said the Coast Guard will face many challenges in monitoring and overseeing the Port and Maritime Security Act. Between now and the end of the year, the Coast Guard plans to conduct on-site inspections at all port facilities and aboard as many ships as possible, a task made even more daunting by the fact that many ship owners and operators were self-certified, requiring Coast Guard personnel to review the security plans before they can certify compliance. The costs for implementing those new requirements have not yet been determined, and the question of who should fund them has been a source of contention.

The new shipping rules mark a substantial improvement in safety, but policy-makers must continue to monitor the situation.

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