Maritime Security:

New Structures Have Improved Information Sharing, but Security Clearance Processing Requires Further Attention

GAO-05-394: Published: Apr 15, 2005. Publicly Released: May 17, 2005.

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Sharing information with nonfederal officials is an important tool in federal efforts to secure the nation's ports against a potential terrorist attack. The Coast Guard has lead responsibility in coordinating maritime information sharing efforts. The Coast Guard has established area maritime security committees--forums that involve federal and nonfederal officials who identify and address risks in a port. The Coast Guard and other agencies have sought to further enhance information sharing and port security operations by establishing interagency operational centers--command centers that tie together the efforts of federal and nonfederal participants. GAO was asked to review the efforts to see what impact the committees and interagency operational centers have had on improving information sharing and to identify any barriers that have hindered information sharing.

Area maritime security committees provide a structure that improves information sharing among port security stakeholders. At the four port locations GAO visited, federal and nonfederal stakeholders said that the newly formed committees were an improvement over previous information sharing efforts. The types of information shared included assessments of vulnerabilities at port locations and strategies the Coast Guard intends to use in protecting key infrastructure. The three interagency operational centers established to date allow for even greater information sharing because the centers operate on a 24-hour-a-day basis, and they receive real-time information from data sources such as radars and sensors. The Coast Guard is planning to develop its own centers--called sector command centers--at up to 40 additional port locations to monitor information and to support its operations. The relationship between the interagency operational centers and the planned expansion of sector command centers remains to be determined. The major barrier hindering information sharing has been the lack of federal security clearances for nonfederal members of committees or centers. By February 2005--or 4 months after the Coast Guard developed a list of 359 committee members who needed a security clearance--28 of the 359 members had submitted the necessary paperwork for a security clearance. Coast Guard field officials did not clearly understand that they were responsible for contacting nonfederal officials about the clearance process. To deal with this, in early April 2005, the Coast Guard issued guidance to field offices that clarified their role. In addition, the Coast Guard did not have formal procedures that called for the use of data to monitor application trends. Developing such procedures would aid in identifying deficiencies in the future. As the Coast Guard proceeds with its program, another way to improve the submission of paperwork involves educating nonfederal officials about the clearance process.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that nonfederal officials receive needed security clearances as quickly as possible, both now and in the future, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to develop formal procedures so that local and headquarters officials use the Coast Guard's internal databases of state, local, and industry security clearances for area maritime committee members as a management tool to monitor who has submitted applications for a security clearance and to take appropriate action when application trends point to possible problems. For example, updating the database on a routine basis could identify port areas where progress is slow and indicate that follow-up with local field office officials may be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, we reported most committee members had been slow in submitting their applications for a security clearance. In fact, as of February 2005 only 28 of 359 officials the Coast Guard identified who should receive a clearance had submitted the application forms. As a result, the information they possess may be incomplete and may limit their ability to deter, prevent, and respond to a potential terrorist attack. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to develop procedures to monitor who has submitted applications for a security clearance and to take appropriate action when application trends point to possible problems. Since then, the Coast Guard distributed two memos to field office officials clarifying their role granting security clearances to AMSC members; Coast Guard's Office of Port and Facility Activities developed a database to track receipt of clearances; and the same office completed an audit that cleared up discrepancies in the master list of committee members eligible to apply for a security clearance, and plans to do so annually.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that nonfederal officials receive needed security clearances as quickly as possible, both now and in the future, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to raise the awareness of state, local, and industry officials about the process of applying for security clearances. This effort could involve using brochures, Web sites, or other information that the FBI has used in its program for educating state and local officials about the security clearance process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Coast Guard

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, we reported most committee members had been slow in submitting their applications for a security clearance. In fact, as of February 2005 only 28 of 359 officials the Coast Guard identified who should receive a clearance had submitted the application forms. As a result, the information they possess may be incomplete and may limit their ability to deter, prevent, and respond to a potential terrorist attack. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to raise the awareness of state, local, and industry officials about the process of applying for security clearances. Since then, the Coast Guard has developed and distributed an informational brochure outlining the security clearance process; and committees have been briefed on the program. Coast Guard officials reported that 212 AMSC members have received a security clearance to date.

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