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Homeland Security is a Coast Guard Mission

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
October 1, 2001
U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings


"Homeland Security is a Coast Guard Mission" published in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings October 1, 2001 was written in July 2001.

Defending the United States against terrorist attack-especially in vulnerable ports such as Long Beach, California-is a mission that fits the Coast Guard's capabilities perfectly.

Homeland defense and homeland security have become the latest rage in commissions and think tanks around Washington. Over the past year, eight major studies and reports have rolled off the presses, sharing a remarkable degree of consensus. They agree that there is a real and imminent threat of a catastrophic attack on the American people and the critical infrastructure that is the backbone of our powerful society, and that the U.S. government is unprepared and possesses no adequate organizational structure to prevent or respond to such an attack. The Bush administration seems to be taking these findings to heart. In early May, Vice President Dick Cheney was tasked with overseeing the development of a coordinated national effort for protecting the nation against the use of weapons of mass destruction. At the Pentagon, a recent study prepared for the Secretary of Defense incorporates defense of the U.S. homeland into U.S. military strategy guidelines for the first time in decades.

The idea that we need to protect our homeland from attack does not sit well with most Americans. Ever since we won our national independence, we have enjoyed relative freedom from direct military threat, with the exception of some pesky Redcoats during the War of 1812 and Pancho Villa's incursions along the Southwest border at the start of the last century. But it not just that our 21st-century adversaries may prefer to bring their battles to U.S. soil that makes us queasy. It also is a concern that the cure might be worse than the disease. Americans have never been enthusiastic about standing armies. In the post-World War II era, we accommodated ourselves to the need for a large national security establishment by clearly demarcating where its writ would run-overseas. We were willing to make an unparalleled investment to contain the Soviet Union and to deal with conflicts "over there." But the quid pro quo was supposed to be that civilians could enjoy their full freedoms here at home.

For many with memories of World War II, the surge in interest in homeland security undoubtedly conjures up images of enforced blackouts and armed beach and port security patrols. Those who lived through the first decades of the Cold War are likely to have flashbacks of air raid drills and backyard bomb shelters. For contemporary planners in the Pentagon, struggling to match paltry resources to growing missions, the increase in interest undoubtedly generates new anxieties that this will become an additional mandate that will distract them from their other important work. The homeland security issue may generate uneasiness in many quarters, but it should not make the U.S. Coast Guard uneasy. Indeed, it would be a mistake for senior Coast Guard leaders to remain mute as this national debate unfolds. By stepping out smartly, the Coast Guard can both advance the service's interests and serve the American people.

The Terrorist Threat

As the world's predominant military, economic, and cultural power, the United States is "Public Enemy No. 1" for any group or nation that resents its global dominance. But terrorists, radical religious or ethnic sects, and rogue states who want to give form to their pique over the United States' unequaled global reach can hold few illusions about winning direct contests with U.S. military forces. Instead, the targets of tomorrow increasingly will lie in the civil realm, where the economic and cultural components of national power are vulnerable.

The disturbing trends toward unconventional weapons proliferation-including nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction-portend that terrorists likely will have access to the means for conducting a catastrophic attack. In the largely unprotected ports, waterways, and coastal regions, there is ample opportunity to harm Americans, gain access to critical national infrastructure, and disrupt the nation's vital transportation lifelines.

The Bush administration appears poised to spend up to $100 billion to construct a national ballistic missile defense system, but officers and inspectors charged with policing the vessels and cargo moving to, from, and through U.S. ports and waterways know that it is not only the nation's aerospace that is wide open but its maritime space as well. Despite their best efforts over more than two decades, these inspectors have been able to interdict only a fraction of the illicit narcotics destined for our shores. Most ports have no security except that provided by minimum-pay private security guards hired by commercial tenants. The volume and velocity of people, cargo, and commercial and recreational traffic that move on the water far exceed the resources available for ensuring that these cross-border flows are complying with U.S. laws.If an adversary wanted a weapon of mass destruction to reach the United States, he likely would consider the merits of transporting it on board avessel or within a maritime container. When launched, a ballistic missile has a very pronounced signature, and the United States is capable of conducting a devastating retaliatory strike. So why would not an Osama binLaden or some rogue state choose an alternative scenario, such as loading a chemical weapon into a container originating from a front company in Karachi, Pakistan, and ultimately destined for Newark, New Jersey? Aterrorist might use a Pakistani exporter with an established record of trade in the United States. The container could have a global positioning system(GPS) device so it could be tracked as it moved through Singapore or Hong Kong to mingle with the more than half a million containers handled by each of these ports every month. It could arrive in the United States via Long Beach or Los Angeles and be loaded directly on a railcar for the transcontinental trip. Current regulations do not require an importer to file a cargo manifest with the U.S. Customs Service until the cargo reaches its "entry" port-in this case, Newark, 2,800 miles of U.S. territory away from where it first entered the country-and the importer is permitted 30 days' transit time to make the trip to the East Coast. When the container reaches the rail yard outside Chicago-which is one of the most important rail hubs in the United States-the weapon could be set off, long before its contents were even identified as having entered the country. Most Americans and their defense planners are oblivious to just how open U.S. maritime borders are. If they were not, they likely would reconsider plans to spend so much on some rather fanciful technology against what most respected observers see as a very low-probability threat, and instead-or at least concurrently-would invest in lower-cost homeland security measures designed to prevent and protect against an attack by unconventional means. The "weapon-in-a-container" scenario frames what is the essential challenge of homeland security. We must strike the optimal balance between permitting the free movements of legitimate travelers, cargo, and information, and advancing the capacity to identify and intercept illegitimate people and goods that would cause Americans harm. Pursuing the latter without being mindful of the former is not an option. Measures that would sacrifice freedom for the sake of security essentially are un-American, and sustaining U.S. economic competitiveness in a world where 95% of the consumers and much of the raw materials lie outside the United States requires that the barriers associated with conducting global business be kept to a minimum.

Anomaly Detection

Because striving for a failsafe system to protect the U.S. homeland is both unrealistic and likely to be counter productive, does this mean that the only alternative is to standby for globalization's heavy rolls? No. The best way to balance the imperatives of openness and control is to embrace a risk management approach. Risk management involves developing the means to identify transnational activities and actors that pose little or no risk to the United States so that limited regulatory, enforcement, and security resources can be targeted at those that present a high risk. With so much of the world's trade moving by sea, and with so many vessels engaged in both work and play transiting along U.S. maritime frontiers, managing risk within the nation's largely open maritime space is no simple task. In 2000, 5.8 million 40-foot maritime containers and 211,000 commercial vessels entered U.S. ports, most registered under foreign flags.

On the Great Lakes alone there are more than 4 million U.S.-registered small boats. How is it possible to filter the bad from the good given such numbers? The answer lies in anomaly detection, a relatively new conceptbeing promoted by cyber-security experts that most seasoned Coast Guard boarding officers and Customs inspectors have been practicing for a longtime.

In the computer industry, anomaly detection is the most promising means for detecting hackers intent on stealing data or transmitting computer viruses. The process involves monitoring the flows of computer traffic with an eye toward discerning normal traffic that moves by way of the most technologically rational route. Once this baseline is established, software is written to detect aberrant traffic. A good computer hacker will try to look as much as possible like a legitimate user. But because he is not legitimate, he inevitably must do some things differently. Good cyber-security software will detect that variation and deny access. For those hackers who manage to get through, their breach is identified and shared so that this abnormal behavior can be removed from the guidance of what is normal and acceptable.

In much the same way, the overwhelming majority of the vessels, people, and cargo that move in and out of our waters-particularly those originating in overseas ports-move in predictable patterns. If we have the means to track these flows, we will have the means to detect aberrant behavior. This is what happens when a Coast Guard boarding officer climbs on board a fishing vessel and discovers that it has the wrong kind of gear for the fishery in which the captain claims he is working. Anomaly detection within the maritime space is possible if the regulatory and enforcement agencies whosed aily tasks place them in that space are given access to intelligence about real or suspected threats or are provided the means to gather, share, and mine data that provide a comprehensive picture of normal maritime traffic to enhance their odds of detecting threats when they materialize. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral James Loy calls this "maritime domain awareness." Around Washington, he has been making the case that the nation needs this kind of capability. Through his advocacy, he also has been demonstrating that the Coast Guard is well positioned to play a leadership role in developing it. Of course, possessing the means to detect a threat within the maritime domain is only the first step. The nation must also have the means to intercept that threat and exercise law enforcement action. A busy waterfront pier in Los Angeles or Seattle is hardly an optimal place to find and defuse a bomb. A better approach would be to intercept the vessel carrying the weapon offshore. If a shoreside evolution is required, the vessel could be escorted to a less vulnerable locale. For this kind of mission, the country would want a fleet of modern, swift, and capable cutters that can safely operate on the high seas, in all types of weather, deploying helicopters and small boats to transport boarding teams, night or day, while communicating securely with the National Command Authorities.

Around the clock, 365 days a year, the Coast Guard is patrolling our

nation's water ways, coastal regions, and exclusive economic zones, and

operating far from our shores when the missions require. But increasingly the service performs its missions with platforms that are well past their useful service lives and kept operational only by constant repairs, thereby robbing an already austere operating budget. The service's Deepwater acquisition properly aims to rectify this unsustainable situation so that the United States will have the kind of maritime interception and law enforcement capabilities it needs to stop threats to the homeland before they arrive.

Because a terrorist still may succeed at evading good intelligence, detection, and interception assets, the final pieces to the homeland security mission are protection of critical infrastructure and the management of the consequences of an attack. The extent to which ports arecritical infrastructure is highlighted by the dependency of California on asingle pier in the Port of Long Beach for the offloading of 45% of all themaritime crude shipments (408,000 barrels per day) or roughly 25% of all thecrude oil consumed by the state. Because California's gasoline refineriesare all operating at full capacity, at any given time there is only enoughoil stored in the region to supply them for two days. Accordingly, if thekind of terrorist attack that was conducted in Yemen against the USS Cole (DD-67) took place against a tanker tied up to that one pier, the economy of Southern California-which is bigger than the economies of most of theworld's nations-would grind to a halt within a matter of days. Given such an attractive and almost completely unprotected target, a terrorist might prefer to attack that pier at Long Beach rather than a Navy frigate tied upat the San Diego Naval Base.

Coast Guard captains of the port will have an increasingly important role to play in gathering data to support intelligence collection efforts, conducting vulnerability assessments, raising awareness about those vulnerabilities, and leading local, state, and federal efforts designed to make ports more secure. These protective measures should help reduce the consequences of a terrorist incident within a U.S. port, but there would be consequences nonetheless. Coast Guard shoreside and afloat assets will play the role of first responder, as well as help manage the aftermath as theon-scene federal incident coordinator.

A Coast Guard Opportunity

The homeland security mission presents a historic opportunity for the U.S.Coast Guard to highlight the critical role it plays in the nation's defense. The nature of that mission goes well beyond the warfighting potential of the service's port security units and larger cutters, drawing on the entire tapestry of Coast Guard missions and capabilities. The most astute eyes and ears within the maritime domain belong to Coast Guard men and women doing their day-to-day missions. Whether conducting boating safety, marine and harbor safety, and fisheries patrols, or monitoring and working within our nation's waterways on a buoy tender or in a vessel traffic system, these personnel are positioned to detect aberrant activities that can pin point aterrorist threat. The service's work in support of migrant and drug interdiction provides it with many of the means to share information in the interagency process. Its long-standing relationships with the Navy and the Department of Defense make it an ideal go-between among the national security, law enforcement, and regulatory worlds. The work of Coast Guard marine safety offices provides an entree to the maritime industry, port authorities, and local and state officials, which is essential for advancing critical infrastructure protection and consequence management within our nation's seaports. And the Coast Guard's superb international reputation can support necessary overseas efforts to improve security and information sharing arrangements that can reduce the risk that the world's maritime transportation system will be exploited by terrorists to hurt Americans at home. No matter how large an investment is made to reinvent the U.S. national intelligence and defense establishment for the post-Cold War world, it will be unable to duplicate the kinds of capabilities that the Coast

Guard brings to the table.

The appeal of the Coast Guard's low-cost, multimission platforms coupled withits unique civil-military attributes make capitalizing on the Coast Guard as a lead agency for the homeland security mission an idea whose time has arrived. These attributes have the potential for real political resonance as the national missile defense and homeland defense debates unfold. There are many inside the D.C. beltway who have misgivings about the huge investment, the abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the consequencefor U.S. relations with Russia, China, and our European allies that missile defense entails. There also are those who have understandable reservations about assigning the U.S. military and national intelligence establishment a prominent role in domestic security. Collectively, these politicians and commentators are in search of alternatives that address their concerns without allowing their critics to portray them as weak on defense. A compelling alternative is a homeland security strategy that emphasizes a risk and consequence management approach enlisting the unique capabilities of the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies with border-management responsibilities.

Commander Flynn is a senior fellow with the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is directing a three-year project on "Border Control in an Era of Global Economic


Copyright U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings

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