Maritime Security:

DHS Could Benefit from Tracking Progress in Implementing the Small Vessel Security Strategy

GAO-14-32: Published: Oct 31, 2013. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 2013.

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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.

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 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.

For more information, contact Stephen Caldwell at (202) 512-9610 or caldwells@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve DHS's ability to monitor progress, prioritize action items, and identify successes, the Secretary of Homeland Security should 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: In fiscal year 2014, we reported on the actions that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have taken to address small vessel security risks. We reported, among other things, that DHS had started or completed initiatives to address small vessel security risks, such as one initiative to assist the Coast Guard in assessing and monitoring small vessel launch sites and another to help CBP better track small vessels arriving from foreign locations. However, we also reported that DHS is not tracking the progress being made to address action items in its Small Vessel Security Strategy (SVSS) Implementation Plan, and we recommended that they do so on a regular basis. In December 2013, DHS reported that it is currently reviewing an internal Coast Guard report on progress and challenges in implementing the SVSS Implementation Plan action items, and that after this review, DHS would work with small vessel security stakeholders to evaluate the current status of the plan and provide an update for DHS leadership by early 2014. To fully address this recommendation, DHS will need to complete its evaluation and update of the SVSS Implementation Plan and ensure that it continues to do so in the future.

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