Lieberman: Coast Guard Needs More Than Lip Service

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday called upon President Bush to back up his rhetoric on improving the Coast Guard’s capability to fight terrorism with the money and vision needed to succeed in that effort. The President was in New London, Conn., to deliver the commencement address to the first class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to graduate under the Department of Homeland Security.

“We hear over and over that the nation’s 361 ports are the Achilles’ heel of our domestic war on terrorism,” Lieberman said. “And yet, this administration has provided less leadership than lip service toward helping the Coast Guard meet its post-September 11th commitments. Time and again, the administration has failed to make the necessary hard choices, and that leaves our waterways vulnerable to future terrorist violence.”

Lieberman noted that the President’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget contains no new money for basic port security. The Coast Guard has estimated the overall cost of physical security improvements – perimeter fencing, guards, monitors – at $4.4 billion. Lieberman called for an initial investment of $1.2 billion to be spent this year. The administration has also provided just a fraction of the money needed for the Coast Guard to modernize its fleet. At the administration’s current funding rate, it will take more than 20 years to complete the modernization, known as the Deep Water Initiative.

Lieberman said the pace must be quickened and the project completed within 10 years. To achieve that, he has called for an additional $700 million, on top of Bush’s proposed $500 million, for fleet modernization for 2004.

“The Coast Guard is a wonderful service,” Lieberman said, “but it cannot meet its new challenges with rusty, antiquated equipment. The agency itself has told us that the readiness of its fleet is decreasing even while maintenance costs are increasing. The Coast Guard needs real resources to do the job we expect to be done.”

Lieberman also proposed an additional $100 million, on top of Bush’s $62 million, to fund the Container Security Initiative, a program that stations Customs officers overseas to inspect cargo before it reaches U.S. ports. Worldwide, 20 ports participate in this program. Customs has representatives in only five of those ports. And finally, Lieberman called on the Transportation Security Administration to spend the $58 million Congress appropriated to Operation Safe Commerce – a program that tracks containers entering ports in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

TSA Administrator Admiral James Loy recently told a Senate Committee he could not guarantee that money would be spent on port security because of budget shortfalls elsewhere in the agency.

“Let’s take a look beyond the pretty photo-ops and the soaring rhetoric and read the fine print,” Lieberman said. “And the fine print of this administration sells the Coast Guard short.”