Maritime Transportation Security: A Unique Challenge

By: , Posted on: August 31, 2015

Maritime Transportation Security
Container terminal at Port of Los Angeles, CA (Source: Port of Los Angeles,

Efforts to secure the maritime sector – including seaports and inland ports, and the vessels that service them – are confronted by unique challenges. First, in contrast to both the land and aviation modes, cargo, rather than passengers, has been the primary object of most security attention, thus increasing the role of economic considerations in the implementation of security measures and often yielding a lower “price” (in monetary terms and/or convenience) customers are willing to pay when profit margins rather than lives are at stake. Second, with terrorist attacks on maritime systems being far fewer than those directed at the other modes, attempts to build and sustain governmental (and public) support for maritime security measures are particularly complicated. Finally, longstanding international and national divisions of responsibility between protection of vessels and port facilities on the one hand, and trade on the other, have yielded two separate security systems: one for ship and port security and the other for customs.

Another distinction of maritime security is the fact that terrorism has been a much lesser threat to the safety of vessels, cargo, crew and passengers than another form of attack: piracy (which may be defined as an act of boarding or attempting to board a ship with the intent to commit a crime through use or threatened use of force). For example, in the period from 2002-2012, there were over 4,000 incidents of maritime piracy worldwide compared to just 73 terrorist incidents in the maritime mode. Though the line separating terrorism from piracy can be rather indistinct at times (resting almost entirely on the perpetrator’s motives, which may or may not be precisely defined), it is a fact that the international maritime security system has evolved out of attempts to curb piracy.

maritime chart
Sources: International Maritime Organization and START Global Terrorism Database

The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas was the first international effort to establish a legal system for combatting piracy, and its anti-piracy provisions were modified and somewhat expanded by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The 1985 attack on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro led to calls for further enhancement of international and national maritime security efforts, culminating in the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, under which all unlawful acts against a ship, its crew, or passengers are covered, regardless of the location, source, or motive of the attack, and all nations party to the convention are obligated to prosecute such acts for incidents within their territory.

Though 9/11 did not directly involve maritime transportation, it nonetheless spurred additional actions with respect to maritime security, most importantly including the adoption of: the 2002 Amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which created the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code that continues to serve as the basis for international, and most national, efforts to protect maritime vessels and port facilities against security threats; and the 2002 World Customs Organization (WCO) SAFE Framework of Standards to Secure International Trade, which is the primary international security instrument for protecting global trade.

In the United States, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 and SAFE Port Act of 2006 were enacted to, among other things, implement the ISPS Code and SAFE Framework, with the Coast Guard given the lead in enforcing the former and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the latter. Among the key Coast Guard security efforts are: the monitoring of, and enforcement of compliance with the ISPS Code by, foreign ships entering U.S. waters; the approval and compliance oversight of U.S. port facility and vessel security plans; operation of vessel tracking systems; and organization of Area Maritime Security Committees to enhance communications between federal, state, local and private sector stakeholders within port areas.

CBP security programs include:

– The Container Security Initiative, under which CBP agents and other governments’ customs agents work together to identify and examine cargo containers bound for the United States that pose a high potential risk of concealing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or other terrorist-related prohibited cargo.

– The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), which is a voluntary program through which CBP works with private companies involved in international trade in reviewing and improving the security of the companies’ supply chains.

A particular focus of U.S. maritime security efforts has been the development and deployment of technology to scan cargo containers for nuclear materials. In coordination with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, CBP has deployed more than 1400 radiation portal monitors at U.S. ports of entry, and the U.S. Department of Energy has installed radiation detection equipment at more than 40 select foreign ports.

Maritime security in the 21st century rests on a combination of international standards and the policies and implementation of national governments. These efforts have improved the security of maritime transportation systems and their cargo and passengers (albeit with variable national-level implementation). Compared to the situation prior to 9/11, there is much more recognition and acceptance of vessel, port and customs security standards; better and more widely disseminated information on maritime security threats; and heightened security awareness throughout the sector. At the same time, the number of terrorist attacks on maritime transportation has remained relatively constant and the level of sea piracy incidents remains quite high. Given the openness and dispersal of maritime transportation systems, and the challenges in sustaining support for security measures, it remains to be seen how much more progress is likely to be achieved.

About the Author:

William Johnstone served on the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission) after working for over 20 years as a Congressional staff member. He is the author of 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security (2006), Bioterror: Anthrax, Influenza, and the Future of Public Health Security (2008, paperback edition to be published in 2015), and the homeland security section of the annual A Unified Security Budget for the United States (2007-2012). He is the co-author of the monograph “Four Flights and Civil Aviation Security, staff report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States” (2004), and a contributor to The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (2004). In his time as a Congressional staff member, Johnstone served as legislative director for U.S. Senators Wyche Fowler, Jr. (D-GA) and Max Cleland (D-GA). Mr. Johnstone grew up in Atlanta, GA and attended Emory University. He currently lives in Rockville, MD with his wife and son, and is a consultant and writer on homeland security matters.

About the Book:

Protecting Transportation: Implementing Security Policies and Programs provides a thorough overview of transportation security in the United States, with a focus on policy. The book coversall major transportation modes and puts the American security system into perspective against other national and international systems.

protecting transportation

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