Terrorists and criminals can target the U.S. supply chain through security vulnerabilities in foreign ports. A recent report warned that criminal networks are increasingly working toward the infiltration of and control over major logistical points.
The Coast Guard’s International Port Security Program aims to assess and strengthen the security of foreign ports, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Coast Guard faces a longstanding challenge in accessing some countries’ ports to conduct assessments.
U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show that the majority of U.S. cargo arrives by maritime vessel, accounting for about 41 percent of total cargo value, or over $1.8 trillion. This movement of cargo through the U.S. supply chain is inherently vulnerable to terrorist threats given that criminals have exploited foreign seaports for other illegal purposes, such as to smuggle people, weapons, and illicit substances to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) supply chain security strategy has focused in part on identifying and addressing potential security risks at foreign ports as a way to reduce the risk posed by vessels transiting from them to U.S. ports.
The Coast Guard’s International Port Security Program specifically assesses the effectiveness of a trading partner’s port antiterrorism security measures based on its implementation of the International Maritime Organization’s International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. The ISPS Code is a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities, developed in response to the perceived threats to ships and port facilities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. When the Coast Guard determines foreign ports are not effectively implementing the ISPS Code, it takes three primary actions: It lists countries and their ports on the Port Security Advisory which imposes additional conditions of entry for vessels arriving from these countries; establishes additional screening; and provides technical support including workshops and seminars to assist countries enhance their counterterrorism efforts at ports.
To conduct its assessments, Coast Guard program personnel generally visit a sample of ports within a country where they meet with the country’s officials responsible for implementing the ISPS Code and observe security measures in place at port facilities.
A GAO review has found that since 2014, the Coast Guard generally met its triennial foreign port security assessment requirement before the COVID-19 pandemic led it to suspend its country assessment visits during fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The program resumed its visits in May 2021.
The pandemic inevitably had a large impact on assessments, but visits have also been a challenge in some countries due to the program’s reliance on foreign countries’ willingness to cooperate with the assessment process, and the Coast Guard’s inability to access some of them for country assessments. This is because the program’s ability to do so is subject to a country’s approval and its diplomatic relations with the United States. According to Coast Guard documentation, program officials have not visited 18 countries since 2014.
As a consequence of these longstanding challenges accessing some countries’ ports to conduct assessments, the Coast Guard began using alternative approaches, such as using Coast Guard intelligence or open-source reporting, to make determinations for some countries it has been unable to visit. However, GAO found that the program has only done so for two of the 18 countries not visited since 2014.
The program documents the results of its foreign port assessments in various reports. However, GAO found that as of September 2022, it had not disseminated its most comprehensive report (known as its annual report) to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other federal agencies that may have a vested interest in receiving it. Program officials told GAO they had “briefed DHS components on their findings”, including the DHS Secretary, the Transportation Security Administration, and CBP. GAO said that by sharing its annual reports with CBP and other federal agencies, the Coast Guard could better support its “whole of government” approach for securing the U.S. supply chain.
During the course of its review, GAO also found that the Coast Guard has not always included countries that it determined did not meet the ISPS Code on its Port Security Advisory. For example, the government watchdog found that the Port Security Advisory does not include five countries, which were determined to not meet the ISPS Code from fiscal years 2014 through 2022. Coast Guard officials noted that diplomatic concerns are a factor in whether the Coast Guard includes a country’s ports on its Port Security Advisory. They stated that its decision not to place these five ports on the Port Security Advisory list was based on diplomatic concerns from its interagency partners. For example, in four out of five of these cases, the State Department, the National Security Council, or both expressed concerns about the impact of issuing a Port Security Advisory on the United States’ relations with that country. In the fifth case, the Coast Guard chose not to list the country on the Port Security Advisory due to instability in the host country’s government affecting its ability to communicate the advisory.
The State Department also provides capacity building to help its maritime trading partners strengthen their port security. However, GAO’s review found that the two agencies have not regularly coordinated planning and implementation, which risks potentially overlapping their individual efforts. GAO found that from fiscal year 2014 through 2022, more than half (nine of 16) of the State Department’s maritime port security training offerings occurred within a year of the Coast Guard providing similar offerings to the same country.
GAO is making six recommendations, including that the Coast Guard document its procedures for using alternative approaches to make foreign port security assessment determinations, share its annual assessment reports with CBP and other federal agencies it identifies as having a vested interest, and establish a process with the State Department for coordinating foreign port security capacity building. The Department of Homeland Security and State Department concurred with the recommendations.