Coast Guard steps up homeland security efforts

The Coast Guard has launched demonstration programs in Canada and in the waters surrounding Puerto Rico to test innovative new ways to patrol U.S. coastal borders, officials said Wednesday.

One program, called Shiprider, is a joint effort with the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, which was initiated in the summer of 2007 outside Washington State, said Sloan Tyler, border security development officer at the Coast Guard's Office of Law Enforcement.

About 40 Coast Guard and Canadian police members work together in the Shiprider program to interdict coastal smugglers and illegal cross-border traffickers. They developed joint legal agreements enabling Coast Guard cutters to continue pursuing criminal suspects within Canadian territory, and vice versa.

"The criminals would sit over the Canadian border, shocked, because they did not understand why the Coast Guard kept coming. Surprise!" Tyler said.

The program has resulted in 170 boardings of vessels by both Coast Guard and Canadian police and at least six major seizures of contraband drugs, she said.

The other program, Biometrics At Sea, has been operating since November 2006 in the Mona Pass waterway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republican. It is a popular passageway for human traffickers to bring Dominican illegal immigrants to Puerto Rico by sea. The illegal aliens typically then obtain fake identification and travel by air to the United States.

Under the program, the Coast Guard takes fingerprints from a portable handheld device from suspected illegal immigrants interdicted at sea. Those fingerprints are transmitted by satellite to be checked against Homeland Security Department visa records, criminal warrants and terrorist watch lists. The immigrants are then held for prosecution or are returned to their homeland.

From November 2006 to January 2008, about 1,400 people have been interdicted at Mona Pass, and 114 people have been prosecuted, said Capt. Thomas W. Jones, commanding officer for the guard's research and development center.

"Those 114 prosecutions is an increase from zero. We had no way of prosecuting before," Jones said.

The Coast Guard also is preparing a Northern Border Demonstration Project in the Detroit area to demonstrate cooperation and collaboration, Tyler said. The goal is to develop a prototype for joint air, land and marine border security and to demonstrate alternatives to Boeing Co.'s solution for a command and control communications platform in the SBInet program at the southwest U.S. border, she said.

In addition, the Coast Guard is discussing interoperability projects with the Canadian police. The Canadians are launching their own pilot interoperability project in the Alberta Province this year but it is in a land-locked area so the Coast Guard is not directly involved, Tyler said.

Still, cross-border coordination continues to be a major challenge, Tylaer said. There needs to be better sharing of timely law enforcement information, better coordination of geospatial information, overcoming of legal challenges, and interoperable communications.

The typical Coast Guard border patrol vessel carries at least seven radios and three cell phones, Tyler said.

"The officers need to communicate with different law enforcement agencies: state, federal, tribal and provincial," she said.

While the Coast Guard officials did not discuss contracting needs for the border, it is presumed that border solutions will continue to be a growing niche for contractors of surveillance systems, interoperable communications, networks, sensors and other homeland security information technologies.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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