Homeland threats emerge as top priority

The ink isn’t yet dry on federal legislation to create a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but already the idea is raising questions — and concerns — about the future role of the Coast Guard.

The crew of a Coast Guard raider boat trains to counter armed attackers.

If the Coast Guard is folded into the DHS — and that’s a big if — its top priority will be securing the nation’s ports and patrolling its vast coastline.

By putting the Coast Guard on the front line in the war against terrorism, some fear that marine safety will take a back seat to marine security. Given that prospect, fishermen, tankermen and congressmen alike are asking: What will happen to the Coast Guard’s traditional tasks of search-and-rescue operations, fisheries inspection and management of the nation’s navigational aid system?

The Coast Guard has already cut back on those types of duties in the months since Sept. 11 to devote more resources to port security. While nobody is saying that security should not be a top concern, some are troubled that it could come at the expense of other Coast Guard functions.

In fact, congressional committees this summer were balking at President Bush’s proposal to put the Coast Guard (and some other federal agencies) into the new DHS. In mid-July, a select U.S. House of Representatives committee that is assembling legislation creating the department told high-ranking administration officials that it did not want the Coast Guard put into the DHS.

Although that action was preliminary, it illustrates the concerns surrounding the Coast Guard’s future.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, said the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have increased over the past decade as its budgets have been cut. He said many mariners are convinced that safety will no longer be job one if the agency is under the Homeland Security umbrella.

“I think the safety functions will diminish unless they’re given adequate funds and manpower,” Jones said. “They have inadequate funds and manpower now.”

The Coast Guard says it has been performing the mission of homeland security since the agency was created in 1790. Adm. Thomas Collins, the Coast Guard commandant, said nearly half the guard’s operating budget is already directly related to the core mission of the DHS.

At a House subcommittee meeting in July, Collins said splitting the agency into pieces — as some have suggested — would threaten the guard’s ability to do any of its jobs properly. He said the same vessels, aircraft and people are involved in all of the Coast Guard’s duties.

“Mixing safety and security is not like mixing oil and water,” he testified.

President Bush has proposed creating a consolidated DHS out of existing government programs currently scattered among a dozen federal departments. The agency would be headed by Tom Ridge, the current director of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

The department’s main mission would be to protect U.S. borders, airports and ports, and assure that intelligence about possible terrorist attacks doesn’t slip through the cracks.

The department would be massive, with an estimated 170,000 employees and a $37.5 billion budget in its first year. It would be a daunting task to organize, as it would absorb the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the new Transportation Security Administration and other agencies.

If the DHS is created as Bush has proposed, the Coast Guard could well be its centerpiece. With nearly 41,000 active-duty and civilian personnel, more than 1,600 vessels, 211 aircraft and a $5.4 billion budget, the Coast Guard would be the largest agency within the DHS.

Assembling the department certainly wouldn’t be easy. After all, it would require the most extensive reorganization of the executive branch since World War II. Congress, by some estimates, has more than 80 committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over the department.

It would involve transferring, merging and possibly eliminating some agencies that come from a variety of other departments. The Coast Guard, for instance, now falls under the Department of Transportation, while the INS comes from Justice, and Customs comes from the Treasury.

If the Coast Guard were put into the DHS, this much seems certain: Its main thrust would be security. If that’s the case, then its traditional responsibilities on the nation’s seas and waterways could be given a lower priority. How can they not, some ask, when the Coast Guard is expected to play such a large role in securing 361 ports and patrolling 95,000 miles of coastline — which amounts to the nation’s longest border?

On Capitol Hill, administration officials this summer met with congressional leaders to reach a consensus on the shape of the new department. Some legislators suggested that the Coast Guard be split, with one section performing its traditional responsibilities under the Department of Transportation, and the other section focusing on security issues within the new DHS.

And the congressional panel that was crafting the legislation out of recommendations submitted by other panels at first rejected the idea of putting the Coast Guard into the DHS. It also voted against Bush’s plan to move the entire INS to the new department and favored transferring the Secret Service to the Justice Department instead of Homeland Security.

Those actions came despite a rare joint appearance by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who pleaded with the panel to stick to Bush’s plan.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said it is imperative that the Coast Guard continue to monitor fishing grounds, save lives, keep foreign vessels out of U.S. waters and perform drug interdiction patrols. Alaska has over half of all U.S. coastline, and commercial fishing is its biggest industry.

“To abandon the concept of the Coast Guard in terms of maintaining the safety of our ships off our shore, and to remove the Coast Guard’s role of protecting our fisheries and ensuring the safety of our fishing fleets would be wrong,” Stevens said.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has been even more adamant. He said the Coast Guard’s mission would change “over my dead body.”

The rhetoric doesn’t stop there.

Environmentalists say the Coast Guard’s oil spill responsibilities could be diminished. Conservationists and commercial fishing organizations say fish populations could be put at risk. Recreational boaters fear that safety will be compromised.

Ed Welch, legislative director of the Passenger Vessel Association in Arlington, Va., said the placement of the Coast Guard is crucial because it has such a large role in overseeing the maritime network that affects so many interests.

“We want to make sure that if the Coast Guard is transferred that there is no diminishment of its marine safety responsibilities or resources,” Welch said. “We have no quarrel about defense of the border, but there are other multimission Coast Guard roles that are quite important.”

For now, the DHS debate continues. The department is scheduled to begin operations in January 2003 or 30 days after legislation is signed into law, whichever comes first, with a one-year transition period to allow for extensive reorganization of the government.

Congressional leaders said they hoped to have a final bill before Bush by mid-September, but that seemed unlikely when Congress began its annual August recess. By that time, the House had passed a version that closely mirrored the president’s blueprint for the agency. The Senate recessed without an agreement, although senators agreed to make the DHS its No. 1 priority when it returned Sept. 3.

Besides the organization of the new agency, questions remain about funding: How much money does the DHS need? The administration claims its proposed $37.5 billion budget will suffice. It further adds that the new department wouldn’t increase overall government spending, but would merely shift spending from other departments to the DHS.

Others aren’t so sure. Skeptics say that the new department’s budget would probably be larger than the sum of its parts — particularly in the first few years.

And there remains the question of how the Coast Guard can continue its traditional duties without a large increase in its budget. This is the same agency, after all, whose fisheries enforcement, drug patrols and illegal-immigrant control efforts are already suffering because of the increased demands on security.

Collins, the Coast Guard commandant, said no matter what problems the new DHS faces initially, the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security is vital to respond to security threats.

He told a congressional committee that the DHS would bring unity to the fight against terrorism and enhance the country’s ability to respond to the threats.

“From the Coast Guard’s perspective,” he said, “it is a necessary change whose time has come.”

But until the department is formed and all the pieces are clearly defined and in place, there will continue to be a certain level of apprehension.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at the least she wants to see provisions that there will be no reduction in funding or personnel for the Coast Guard’s traditional, non-homeland-security duties.

“It’s clear that as important as our homeland security needs are, we cannot abandon the traditional vital missions of the Coast Guard,” she said.

By Professional Mariner Staff