Charleston Port Security Project's Funds in Jeopardy

Mar. 16--Charleston's Project Seahawk, a port security task force that has been hailed as a model for the rest of the country, is in danger of losing its funding, setting off a scramble to keep the counterterrorism effort afloat.

The Justice Department, which oversees Seahawk through the U.S. Attorneys' Offices, has proposed canceling $27 million in appropriations that had been earmarked for the test program, according to a Feb. 9 document outlining the agency's "substantive" budget cuts.

"I was shocked," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped secure Seahawk's original seed money. "We're going to do everything we can to get the funding restored and expand the program."

Seahawk's uncertain future is coming to light amid a national debate over the threat of waterborne terrorism. Congress seized on the issue last month upon learning the White House had cleared the way for a company based in the United Arab Emirates to take over some operations at six major U.S. ports.

Launched about three years ago with $30 million, Seahawk is the nation's first and only collaborative counterterrorism task force set up to root out and respond to potential threats in U.S. waters and at U.S. ports, where the country is said to be highly vulnerable to terrorists and other international criminals.

One of Seahawk's main focuses is to ensure that none of the roughly 5,000 shipping containers that come through the Port of Charleston on a typical day is stuffed with a dirty bomb or other weapon of mass destruction.

Participants in the "unified command" include dozens of security experts from more than 50 local, state and federal agencies, as well as private-sector contractors.

Every day, at an undisclosed high-tech operations center, representatives from each group meet to exchange and analyze information about ship movements in and around the Port of Charleston, the nation's fourth-busiest container port and the second-busiest on the East Coast.

"Now, we're talking about dismantling that," said Bernard S. Groseclose Jr., chief executive officer of the State Ports Authority.

Like Graham and others, Groseclose said he was taken aback to learn the Justice Department is proposing to eliminate Seahawk's funding as of Oct. 1.

"I think it's an issue, and I'm surprised because it's become a model," he said Monday. "People have come here from around the country to see it."

Seahawk officials in Charleston referred questions to Justice Department headquarters. Agency officials in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, whose marine unit is a Seahawk participant, said he was notified about the potential financial crunch about a month ago.

He and interim Charleston Police Chief Ned Hethington recently cosigned a letter urging lawmakers to restore the funding.

Cannon said the $27 million is "a mere drop in the bucket" for the Justice Department, but it's also enough to keep Seahawk running for two or three more years. "I think anyone who has visited here to look at what Seahawk has done would say they are well on their way to developing one of the more effective, unified port-security programs in the country, or the world for that matter," he said.

A shutdown of Seahawk "would have a devastating effect" on the improvements it made to port security in Charleston, Cannon added. "And in a real sense, to me it seems like a waste of the money that's already been spent," he said.

Cannon said the program's budget woes have not had a noticeable impact on its day-to-day operations.

Officials from throughout the Lowcountry still meet for their daily briefings, he said.

"These are proposed cuts, but I suspect that the Seahawk manager here ... has been told not to go forward with any spending beyond that which is already committed," Cannon said.

Coast Guard Capt. John Cameron, the federal maritime security coordinator in Charleston and captain of the port, said he remains hopeful that the government's original plans to expand Seahawk to other cities "are carried out to full fruition." But if the program loses its main backing, he said, the Coast Guard already has told the other participating agencies in Charleston that it would "continue to facilitate as much of the task force as we can."

"We've proven with the partnership that it's the right way to do business," Cameron said. "And keeping the unified command together and keeping the partnership alive will continue to be the right way to do business."

Efforts to keep Seahawk up and running are under way on Capitol Hill, said Sharon Axson, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C. Brown's office has been working with Graham's on "an educational campaign" about Seahawk, including a letter to the congressional port-security caucus, she said.

"We need to heighten awareness of that project," Axson said.

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