On November 19, 2013, the Government Accountability Office issued GAO Report 14-32, Maritime Security: DHS Could Benefit from Tracking Progress in Implementing the Small Vessel Security Strategy. This report is of particular interest to us here at the University of Findlay because our course Small Vessel Security for Rural Communities was recently certified by DHS as AWR 311. The report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-32. Below are highlights from the report.
From the highlights:
Why GAO did this study: The Coast Guard estimates that there were more than 22 million small vessels operating in the United States in 2012. Terrorists, smugglers, and other criminals can use small vessels as platforms for their activities because small vessels are generally unregulated and largely anonymous. Law enforcement agencies face the challenge of distinguishing between legitimate small vessel operators and the relatively few individuals estimated to be engaged in illicit activities. DHS issued its SVSS in April 2008 and its follow-on SVSS Implementation Plan in January 2011 to help guide actions to mitigate the security risks arising from small vessels. Given the importance of small vessel security, GAO was asked to review DHS’s efforts in developing and implementing the SVSS Implementation Plan.
This report examines what actions, if any, DHS and its components have taken to address small vessel security concerns, and the extent to which they have implemented action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan. GAO analyzed DHS documents; interviewed DHS officials; and visited two ports selected on the basis of the volume of small vessel traffic and security initiatives in place, among other things. While the results of the port visits cannot be generalized across all ports, they provided insights on small vessel security issues and operations.
What GAO found: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components—such as the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—have started or completed initiatives to address small vessel security risks, but DHS is not tracking the progress being made to address action items in the Small Vessel Security Strategy (SVSS) Implementation Plan. “Small vessels” are characterized as any watercraft—regardless of method of propulsion—less than 300 gross tons, and used for recreational or commercial purposes. DHS component officials GAO met with identified examples of key initiatives that they have completed or have under way to enhance small vessel security, including an initiative to help CBP better track small vessels arriving from foreign locations and another to assist the Coast Guard in assessing and monitoring small vessel launch sites. Although the SVSS Implementation Plan states that DHS is to assess and update the plan, DHS has not determined the progress its components and other relevant stakeholders—such as the Department of Defense—are making in completing the action items and has no current plans to do so. DHS officials stated that this is due, in part, to budget constraints that make this a low priority. DHS officials stated that updating the SVSS Implementation Plan would be valuable, and doing so is particularly important since more than one component could be responsible for action items in the plan. Accordingly, by systematically gathering information from its components and other relevant stakeholders to regularly update the progress they are making in addressing the action items in the plan, DHS could help prioritize initiatives given constrained budgets and better identify successes and lessons learned, among other things.
What GAO recommends: GAO recommends that DHS regularly update the progress its components and other relevant stakeholders are making in addressing action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan. DHS concurred with the recommendation.
From the main body of the report:
DHS officials we spoke with stated that there is no plan to update the SVSS Implementation Plan because it is not a priority, given budget constraints, and it is too early to measure the effectiveness of action items in the plan. According to a senior DHS Policy official, although the SVSS Implementation Plan states that DHS should assess and update the plan annually, given these constraints, an annual review is too frequent. The senior DHS official added that per the Secretary of Homeland Security’s direction, DHS components are focusing on maintaining their ongoing operations under constrained budgets, and so efforts to update the SVSS Implementation Plan are not currently a priority…Coast Guard officials added that America’s Waterway Watch—a program highlighted in the SVSS Implementation Plan that provides outreach to the public, including the small vessel community, on awareness of threats and how to report suspicious activity—may not receive funding in DHS’s fiscal year 2014 appropriation…
DHS officials also stated that because the SVSS Implementation Plan was issued in early 2011, it is too early to expect a majority of the action items to be completed or, especially for the long-term action items, to have been implemented. These officials stated that accomplishing the SVSS’s goals and objectives through implementation of the many action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan will require a significant investment of time and resources, along with buy-in from state and local maritime security stakeholders. Accordingly, it could take years to fully implement some of the action items and determine whether they are effective…
Although it may be too early to measure the effectiveness of some action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan, updating the progress made in addressing the action items could help DHS and its components prioritize their efforts given constrained budgets; better identify successes and lessons learned; and enhance collaboration with federal, state, and local stakeholders regarding small vessel security issues. The SVSS Implementation Plan states that, because of risk, the unpredictability of budgets, policy changes, and administrative priorities, the plan must be reviewed regularly to ensure that it remains current and accurate. By engaging in this review process, the plan states that it is intended to be a living document that provides a strategic overview of participating agencies’ implementation of the SVSS. Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government calls for federal agencies to design and implement control activities to enforce management’s directives.
Conclusions: Recognizing the risks posed by terrorists using small vessels to attack targets or as a conveyance for terrorists and their contraband to enter the United States, DHS issued its SVSS Implementation Plan in January 2011 to help guide efforts to mitigate the security risks arising from small vessels. DHS component agencies have completed some initiatives and have other initiatives under way to address the risk of a small vessel attack, but DHS is not gathering information on the progress its components or relevant stakeholders are making to address action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan and has no plans to do so. The SVSS Implementation Plan, by design, is to be revised to accommodate new information about threats, technologies, requirements, and lessons learned as action items are implemented, but DHS has not updated the plan since it was issued in 2011. Given that internal controls call for federal agencies to design and implement control activities to enforce management’s directives, DHS could better prioritize initiatives and identify successes if it was to regularly update the progress its components and other relevant stakeholders are making to address the action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan. This information could be particularly useful to DHS components that may be operating under more constrained budgets than when the plan was first issued.
Recommendation for Executive Action: To improve DHS’s ability to monitor progress, prioritize action items, and identify successes, we recommend that the Secretary of Homeland Security systematically gather information from the department’s components and other relevant stakeholders to regularly update the progress they are making in addressing action items in the SVSS Implementation Plan.