Combating Terrorism:

Improvements Needed in Southern Command's Antiterrorism Approach for In-Transit Forces at Seaports

GAO-04-80NI: Published: Oct 31, 2003. Publicly Released: Dec 1, 2003.

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Davi M. Dagostino
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The October 12, 2000, attack against the Navy destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, illustrates the danger of unconventional threats to U.S. ships operating in seaports overseas. The attack also heightened recognition that in-transit forces--Department of Defense (DOD) units, personnel, and assets traveling through or conducting missions within an area of operations, including operations at seaports--are vulnerable to attack by determined terrorists. This report addresses the following questions: (1) To what extent does the U.S. Southern Command's approach to antiterrorism cover all in-transit forces at seaports in its area of responsibility? (2) Are there opportunities to improve the Southern Command's antiterrorism approach for in-transit forces at seaports?

The Southern Command's approach to protecting DOD in-transit vessels as they enter overseas ports is designed to protect most vessels, but a gap exists that may leave certain vessels and their military cargo vulnerable to hostile actions. The Command currently requires each ship captain, or in some cases Military Sealift Command officials, to prepare and submit a ship force protection plan to Southern Command officials for approval before the ship is allowed to enter port. However, commercial ships chartered by the Navy's Military Sealift Command to carry military equipment or supplies for a single, specific voyage--called voyage charters--have visited ports without following this approach. These vessels were excluded from the Command's approach because (1) Southern Command force protection officials have determined that DOD policies do not specifically include voyage charters as part of their antiterrorism responsibilities, and (2) Naval Forces, Southern Command, and Military Sealift Command, Atlantic, officials have not clearly defined antiterrorism roles and responsibilities for voyage charter vessels. Until the Southern Command includes voyage charter vessels as part of its responsibilities, and specific antiterrorism roles and responsibilities for those vessels are delineated, voyage charter vessels and the military cargo they carry will continue to be at unnecessary risk of hostile actions. Opportunities exist for the Southern Command to improve its antiterrorism approach for in-transit forces at seaports by using two key mechanisms--working groups and periodic reviews. A Joint Staff study on antiterrorism best practices identified antiterrorism working groups as an effective mechanism for continuously reviewing antiterrorism measures and emerging threats in order to proactively identify improvements to a commander's antiterrorism program. While the Command has an antiterrorism working group at the command level, this group is not organized or designed to focus on the antiterrorism approach for in-transit forces because Command officials question the usefulness of such a focus. In addition, oversight mechanisms similar to those DOD uses to evaluate antiterrorism measures at fixed installations do not exist to evaluate the Southern Command's overall antiterrorism programs, plans, and procedures for in-transit forces; therefore, gaps or weaknesses may not be identified, placing in-transit forces at unnecessary risk. Without the benefit of a forum focused on antiterrorism measures for in-transit forces and appropriate oversight, the command may be limited in its ability to develop and maintain a dynamic antiterrorism approach for in-transit forces.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with GAO's recommendation and directed the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, to negotiate a Memorandum of Agreement with Military Sealift Command, Atlantic, that delineates roles and responsibilities for antiterrorism planning for all MSC vessels transiting the Southern Command area of responsibility, including voyage charters, to be entered into not later than 31 January 2004.

    Recommendation: To improve the Southern Command's approach to antiterrorism for in-transit forces at seaports, the Secretary of Defense, should direct the Secretary of the Navy to specifically require Naval Forces, Southern Command, and the Military Sealift Command to complete an agreement that delineates roles and responsibilities for antiterrorism planning for voyage charters. A specific time frame should be established to complete the agreement and gain final approval.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, DOD has taken steps to improve its antiterrorism program assessment process. Specifically, the Joint Staff has incorporated changes to the Joint Staff Higher Headquarters Program Review Process to include requirements for analyses of existing vulnerability assessments to identify positive and negative trends, concerns, and implementation shortfalls, as well as, the in-transit focus of the combatant commands prior to conducting an assessment. The updated process has subsequently been tested during higher headquarters reviews of the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command and areas for improvement were tied to those found in the vulnerability assessment trend analyses and pertinent recommendations were made to each Command's staff.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to expand existing Joint Staff antiterrorism oversight policies and responsibilities to include periodic, in-depth reviews of in-transit antiterrorism plans, procedures, and implementation. These reviews, similar to those conducted for fixed installations, should focus not only on the combatant command's adherence to DOD's standards and guidance, but also on evaluating the effectiveness and implementation of the antiterrorism approach and specific measures to identify gaps and weaknesses and suggest improvements. This process should be developed in conjunction with the department's efforts to establish such an oversight mechanism in the European Command.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: MOA that was signed on January 31, 2005, clarifies responsibilities for Military Sealift Command voyage charter vessels. Accomplishment report was prepared in reference to the first recommendation that would also cover this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should, through the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, direct the Commander, U.S. Southern Command, to clarify the Command's antiterrorism responsibilities for in-transit forces so that it includes Military Sealift Command voyage charter vessels, consistent with DOD policies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2004, SOUTHCOM initiated the development of a Mission Assurance Working Group (MAWG) to meet in-transit security needs. The MAWG consists of a core group representative cross-section, including Counterintelligence, Counterterrorism, Information Operations, Critical Infrastructure Protection, AT/Force Protection, Logistics, and Information Assurance, to ensure increased staff participation and involvement in the risk assessment process. The MAWG is convened when a risk assessment is needed for an upcoming mission. All available data for the mission is shared and each subject matter expert makes an initial risk determination for their respective component of the overall mission. These assessments are entered through the Risk Manager software. The software can then compute an overall mission risk value, an overall mitigated risk goal for the mission, and lists all the mitigations that need to occur to reach the goal. Based on this product, the Commander is able to make an informed decision on whether the risk associated with a given mission is acceptable.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should, through the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, direct the Commander, U.S. Southern Command, to establish an appropriate forum through the existing Command antiterrorism working group to continuously assess the Command's antiterrorism approach for in-transit forces and identify improvements to that approach as appropriate. This forum should include members from all key organizations involved with in-transit forces.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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