Congress Turns Attention to Cruise Safety and Security

STAMFORD, Connecticut_A Congressional subcommittee that is primarily focused on terrorism is turning its attention to threats lurking on the high seas amid peaceful vacations.

The Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations and another subcommittee plans a joint hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., focusing on cruise ship disappearances and crimes.

The hearing comes after about a dozen disappearances of cruise ship passengers in recent years, including a high-profile case involving a man from Connecticut.

In the case, George Allen Smith IV of Greenwich vanished July 5 from a Royal Caribbean ship in the Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey. The FBI has been investigating, but no one has been charged and no body has been recovered.

"We want to know how often this kind of thing happens," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut and co-chairman of the national security subcommittee. "Is someone very vulnerable on a cruise? We've never really looked at cruise ships in terms of public safety."

Shays said he wants to know how such incidents are investigated and how authorities determine jurisdiction in international waters.

Smith's family, who is expected to attend the hearing, has called for legislation to protect passengers and their families.

"We just had no conception crimes occurred on cruise ships," Smith's sister, Bree, said in an interview Thursday. "I think there are so many disappearances labeled accidents or suicides."

The congressional hearing, "International Maritime Security," will include testimony from cruise ship officials about their procedures for responding to incidents and jurisdictional conflicts related to investigations. FBI officials are expected to discuss sexual assaults and other crimes that occur on cruise ships.

The issue has been a concern in the past.

In 1999, the cruise ship industry enacted a policy requiring ships out of U.S. ports to report all crimes to the FBI in a move to ease concerns prompted by the disclosure of onboard sexual assaults. Previously, the cruise lines left it up to the victims to report a crime once back in port.

The disclosure of the assaults was ordered by a Florida judge hearing a lawsuit brought by a former crew member alleging a shipboard rape.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 12/12/05>>