GAO: Port Security Improved Since Sept. 11, but Work Remains

Even though port security has improved since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, carrying out many of the security programs have been hindered by poor agency coordination, inadequate planning and insufficient funds, according to testimony by the Government Accountability Office released last week.

Based on a compilation of previous GAO work, the testimony detailed the types of actions that have been taken by the federal government and other stakeholders to improve maritime security, the main challenges in taking action and the tools and approaches that could be helpful in planning future actions.

To secure ports, federal agencies have identified and reduced the vulnerability of seaports, secured the cargo and developed an "informed view" through intelligence, information sharing and new technologies to respond to the threats, according to the report. However, because many of these plans were hastily implemented in response to Sept. 11, "challenges have been encountered," GAO writes.

A lack of planning, the challenge of coordinating activities with federal agencies and port stakeholders to implement programs, and a lack of funds hindered the efforts, GAO states. The report also cites a lack of performance measures and a shortage of experienced personnel for program implementation.

Challenges in coordinating actions include obtaining security clearances, sharing information about security exercises and developing a transportation worker identification credential, the report states.

The report cites the problem of maintaining enough funding for seaport security.

"While some security improvements are inexpensive, most require substantial and continuous funding," GAO writes. At the federal level more than $560 million in grants have been offered to seaports, localities and other stakeholders since 2002 under the port security grant programs but "applicant requests have far exceeded available funds," GAO writes. Members of Congress have requested a study to examine the grant program, and the GAO expects to issue a report later this year.

Further, assessing the progress of securing seaports is difficult because the efforts "lack clear goals" and measures to track progress, GAO writes. Additionally, risk management is an "essential tool for focusing efforts effectively," GAO suggests.

These issues were discussed at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on port security May 17. Upon learning from Robert Jacksta, executive director of customs and border patrol, that approximately 5.5 percent of cargo was screened at seaports in fiscal year 2004, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) responded, "Five percent -- I mean, how do you kind of live with that? . . Everybody knows that Homeland Security is underfunded. Everybody in the world knows it's underfunded . . . I'm angry."

Additionally, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) was frustrated that $250 billion has been appropriated for the war in Iraq, yet "we fail to recognize that the other front from the Middle East is right here at home and that we have to spend according to our needs."

The GAO released a separate report on maritime security examining information sharing with non-federal officials. The report concluded that new structures have improved sharing, but security clearance processing requires further attention.

According to the report, the major barrier preventing information sharing has been the lack of federal security clearances for non-federal members of committees or centers. For example, by February -- four months after the Coast Guard developed a list of 359 members who require security clearance -- 28 had submitted their paperwork. To rectify this, last month the Coast Guard issued a guidance to field offices to clarify that Coast Guard field officials are responsible for contacting non-federal officials about the clearance process.