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GAO warns of lax port security during war

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, July 23 (UPI) -- Despite heightened awareness of terrorism since Sept. 11 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, the U.S. military leaves its rear flank unprotected from terrorists when it deploys through civilian seaports, the General Accounting Office warned a congressional committee Tuesday.

Foreign crews of civilian cargo vessels regularly load and unload sensitive military equipment -- including helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, machine guns and cannons -- without first being investigated. Moreover, they are not overseen by military guards while they handle the equipment, making it possible those "weapons and equipment might be used against military or civilian targets," according to Raymond J. Decker, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management, who testified on the investigation to the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security Tuesday.

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The GAO reviewed security procedures at 14 "sensitive" civilian ports, two ammunition ports and three military installations. The military uses the 14 ports when it has a major war deployment, as in the Persian Gulf War and deployments to the Balkans. During war, as many as 95 percent of troops are deployed through civilian seaports.

For reasons of efficiency and capacity, it also uses private vessels and crews to transport soldiers overseas. Many of those ships are owned by foreign companies and crewed by non-U.S. citizens, some of whom hail from countries known for terrorist activities, Decker said.

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It is not just an idle warning; suicide bombers in the port of Aden, Yemen, posing as port employees, detonated their explosives next to the destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors.

Also of concern is the fact that no single entity in the United States is responsible for port security and the safety of troops as they begin their deployment. By contrast, commanders are required to file security plans with the combatant commander in the area to which the troops are deploying.

However, on the United States' end, U.S. Transportation Command, local commanders, port authorities, local police and the Coast Guard all share responsibility for port security with none of them having direct authority over any of the others. In only one of the 14 bases reviewed did these groups all share threat and security information freely between themselves.

"As a result, potential force protection gaps and weaknesses requiring attention and action might be overlooked," Decker warned.

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