America's ports and waterways are the lifeblood of the nation's economy. Since the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, protecting the country's ports and waterways has been a critical component of guarding against future terrorist attacks.VOA's Chris Simkins reports on how the United States Coast Guard is expanding its operations.
U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Matt Baer and his crew patrol the waters of Puget Sound surrounding the western U.S. city of Seattle, Washington.
Their main job is to protect the ports, ships, and commuter ferries from a terrorist attack. Lt. Baer says, "With Seattle being one of the largest ports on the west coast -- and in the entire country -- the effect that some terrorist attack or something else could have on this country by affecting this port, it would be huge."
Lieutenant Baer's patrol area alone stretches some 120 kilometers north to south running up to the Canadian border. There's plenty of shipping traffic here to keep track of, including hundreds of international cargo vessels, oil tankers and private boats.
There are also nearby oil refineries to protect and the world's third-largest ferry system, which carries more than 28 million passengers every year. Protecting the country is the number one priority says Lt. Baer. "Every possible threat that could be out there to keep track of, all those, is a awful difficult thing to do. But with the men and women we have out there giving it their absolute best we are making a good stab at doing the best we can to protect the country."
Since the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard has developed a layered security approach in the Puget Sound. Some of the measures focus on better identification of shipping traffic.
There are also vessel searches for illegal cargo, including anything terrorists might use.
Captain Stephen Metruck, commander of the Seattle Sector, says the ports and surrounding waters are better protected. "I can say it is more secure than what it was prior to September 11th 2001. We have got a lot more assets here and we have coordination with all the agencies, federal state country and local."
The Coast Guard has set up new maritime safety and security teams. A unit of so-called Sea Marshals are highly trained to respond to a situation at a moment's notice.
On some missions, they board cruise ships to observe passengers, along with their luggage and cargo coming onboard. Coast Guard enforcement officers also screen crewmembers onboard foreign vessels coming into port.
They check their passports to see if they might be on a terrorist watch list and do interviews asking them about their last ports of call. In addition to its expanded anti-terrorism mission, the Coast Guard is still fulfilling its traditional duties such as ensuring safe coastal navigation and search and rescue missions.
James Carafono, a security expert with the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., says the Department of Homeland Security should increase funding for the Coast Guard. "Before you spend a federal dollar on anything first you ought to modernize the U.S. Coast Guard to make sure the Coast Guard is fully prepared because that is the greatest contribution the federal government can make to maritime security."
With the threat of a terrorist attack a real possibility, these Coast Guard officers know they must remain vigilant in protecting the nation's ports, the flow of commerce and marine transportation from terrorism.