PORT EQUIPMENT & TECH REVIEW - GAO says port security information sharing is improving

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Agency report cites ports of Houston and Charleston, among othersBy Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOTInformation sharing among government agencies and private entities at the nation’s ports has improved over the last year, according to a report released earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office. The Congressional watchdog agency credited information sharing structures put into place since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, with aiding in port vulnerability assessments and in developing strategies to use in protect key infrastructure.
The GAO based its conclusions on visits to the ports of Houston, Charleston, Baltimore, and Seattle, where it examined area maritime security committees and Coast Guard operational centers. The GAO concluded, “The newly formed [area maritime security] committees were an improvement over previous information-sharing efforts” and “that these committees continue to be useful forums for information sharing.” Interagency operational centers, the GAO noted, provide intelligence and operational data “to federal and nonfederal participants 24 hours a day.”
Area maritime security committees were established under the authority of the Maritime Transportation Security Act, which passed Congress in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The committees are “composed of federal, state, local, and industry members,” noted the GAO, with the “primary goal to assist the local Captain of the Port (to develop a security plan) to address the vulnerabilities and risks in that port zone. The committees also serve as a link for communicating threats and disseminating security information to port stakeholders.” As of June 2006, the Coast Guard organized forty-six area maritime security committees.
Increase in security clearance applicationsThe major improvement in information sharing over the last year, the GAO found, involved updated procedures for committee participants to obtain security clearances. “In April 2005 the major barrier hindering information sharing was the lack of federal security clearances for nonfederal members of committees or centers,” the report said. “As of June 2006, guidance was put in place and was responsible for an increase in security clearance applications under consideration by the Coast Guard.” As of June 2006, the GAO found, 188 out of 467 nonfederal members of area maritime security committees received security clearances. The equivalent number in February 2005 was zero.
The Coast Guard now has a web-based information sharing tool which it uses to disseminate information to other government officials as well as to the private sector, according to Lt. Eric Taquechel, director of contingency planning and force readiness of the US Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston. “Anyone with a security clearance can have access to the system,” known as Home Port, he said. “We will give clearance based on a need to know.”
Clearance is given, according to Taquechel, based on a simple criterion, applicable equally to the private. “Can they articulate a need to know? If the answer is yes, we give them access,” he said. Private sector companies that sit on the Houston area committee include Kirby Fleeting Corp., Exxon Mobil, Southwest Shipyards, and Dow Chemical.
The Home Port system contains both national and regional information. Users choose their locality by way of a drop down menu and enter their password to receive access. “Private sector participants have access to essentially the same extremely sensitive law enforcement information as do government agencies,” said Taquechel. “When we get threat information, the private sector needs to know about it.”
Houston’s area maritime security brings together local industry and law enforcement as well as federal agencies, said Taquechel. “We sit around a table and brainstorm how to solve security challenges,” he added. “We figure out what to do when new regulations come out that he Coast Guard has to enforce. We sit down at committee meetings and explain how everyone

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Peter Buxbaum has been writing about international trade and transportation, as well as security, defense, technology, and foreign policy, for over 20 years. Besides contributing to the AJOT, Buxbaum's work has appeared in such leading publications as [em]Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Computerworld, and Jane's Defence Weekly[/em]. He was educated at Columbia University.