Project SeaHawk: Building Unity of Effort in Maritime Security

by Christopher Doane and Joseph DiRenzo III
By Christopher Doane,    By Joseph DiRenzo III,“Maritime security is best achieved by blending public and private maritime security activities on a global scale into a comprehensive, integrated effort that addresses all maritime threats.” – The National Strategy for Maritime Security The American “maritime domain” is too vast and the U.S. maritime transportation system too complex for any one government department to secure all of it. During and since the end of World War II, therefore, a broad spectrum of agencies – e.g., the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, various state port authorities, local police departments, shipping companies, and port terminal operators – have conducted their own maritime-security operations. These agencies frequently, but not always, have loosely coordinated their activities with one another, and on some occasions have conducted joint operations, particularly when a criminal threat overlapped their respective jurisdictions. Usually, though, they have operated independently, focusing on their own specific concerns and within their own jurisdictions. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, however, and the belated recognition of how vulnerable the overall U.S. transportation system is to international terrorism, the need Coast Guard and Navy watch standers monitor activities and coordinate the response of field security units to investigate unusual or suspicious activity for federal, state, and local security agencies as well as the private sector to unify their efforts to protect the nation’s maritime assets became a cornerstone concept of the U.S. security strategy.   Recognizing the need for unified maritime security is one thing; making it a reality is a different – and much more difficult – matter.  Through the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the U.S. Congress designated Coast Guard Captains of the Ports (COTPs) as the federal maritime security authorities responsible for coordinating security in the ports to which they were assigned. Creating Combined Communications Capabilities The Act also required – and the COTPs have established – the creation of area maritime security committees consisting of federal, state, local, and private-sector members. Creation of the committees already has improved communication among the members and led to the development of joint plans to enhance coordination for the security of U.S. seaports. There remained, though, an equally important need – namely, the coordination of day-to-day security operations within the port area. As a first step toward meeting this need, the Coast Guard and Navy formed a Joint Harbor Operations Center – in Norfolk, Va. – where Coast Guard and Navy watch standers monitor activities throughout the port and coordinate the response of field security units to investigate unusual or suspicious activity. A similar center is now operational in San Diego, and more are planned for other U.S. ports where the Navy and Coast Guard both have a significant presence. Although a helpful first step, the Norfolk and San Diego centers involve only two agencies. A more comprehensive effort, involving a larger number of maritime stakeholders, obviously is necessary – and that need also is being addressed. One such effort that has received considerable attention in recent months has been the Charleston Harbor Operations Center, commonly known as Project SeaHawk, in Charleston, S.C.   The second largest container port on the U.S. east coast and the fourth largest container port in the United States, Charleston processes the equivalent of over 1.5 million twenty-foot containers annually, according to data compiled by the Charleston Southern University Center for Economic Forecasting. Such a massive volume of maritime commerce obviously provides numerous opportunities for exploitation by criminal or terrorist groups. To address that problem, and reduce U.S. maritime vulnerability in general, then-U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) sponsored the bill that created and funded the SeaHawk program. A Broad Spectrum of Meaningful Opportunities Formed and directed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina, Project SeaHawk, which is sponsored by the Department of Justice (DOJ), operates out of a new high-tech facility staffed with officers from a broad spectrum of agencies, from all levels of government, that have been assigned varying degrees of maritime responsibilities – the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, for example; the Coast Guard and Navy; the FBI; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and, last but by no means least, local police departments and several state law-enforcement agencies. SeaHawk watch standers continuously monitor surveillance video and analyze data from dozens of sources to develop meaningful risk assessments of cargo movements of all types. Following those assessments, task force members with the operational skills needed are assigned, as and when necessary, to board vessels, inspect cargo, and/or conduct harbor patrols – a clear and positive demonstration of unity of effort in action.   Perhaps the greatest value of the center is the opportunity it gives officers from all of the agencies participating to rapidly come together to plan joint responses to any perceived threat. That value was confirmed by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center’s Justice Technology Information Network (JUSTNET), which noted that Project SeaHawk “has created a unified intelligence operations center that includes all federal, state, and local agencies having responsibility for any aspect of port security and protection. “A combined task force will address all areas of security to include screening ship crews, itineraries, and manifests, as well as the physical aspects of daily port operations,” the JUSTNET analysis also noted. “The goal is [creation of] an operational task force that will evolve systematically into a model that can be Project SeaHawk “has created a unified intelligence operations center that includes all federal, state, and local agencies having responsibility for any aspect of port security and protection.” easily replicated at other ports throughout the nation.” Plaudits From Allen, DeMint Theea that SeaHawk may well serve as a model for additional, and perhaps even more ambitious, joint command-and-control (C2) efforts was reinforced last month by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, who pointed out – in an interview with DPJ  Managing Editor John Morton – that SeaHawk is “one of three or four business models” for additional (local) C2 efforts within U.S. ports. Another example, of course, is the Joint Harbor Operations Center described earlier. The C2 models were developed, Allen continued, “in response to local requirements.” The SeaHawk Project, he noted, “evolved from the Joint Terrorism Task Force [JTTF] with the U.S. Attorney … [and has] a justice focus.” The SeaHawk Project received additional high-level attention earlier this month when Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) toured the Charleston center on the 11th of August. “Project Seahawk is on the cutting edge of port security,” DeMint said following his visit, “and it’s something we need around the country.” A member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, DeMint said he already has asked Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to “make sure we begin taking steps to use this program nationwide.” Stevens “told me,” DeMint said, that “he would add it to the port- security bill, so I’m confident we are one step closer to making this bill a reality.” The fact that Project SeaHawk is already considered to be a model of how multiple agencies can be brought together to leverage their respective expertise and capabilities to provide comprehensive port security is perhaps the best evidence of how successful the project has been. The suggestion that senior officials are considering how to translate the SeaHawk concept to other ports is further evidence, and illustrates the importance of the multi-agency cooperation emphasized in the National Strategy for Maritime Security.     ___________________________________ About the authors: Christopher Doane and Joseph DiRenzo III are frequent DPJ contributors. Both are retired Coast Guard Officers and Visiting Fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College.