U.S. Coast Guard out of Counterterror?

This one’s been sitting in the browser tabs for a while, based on a February 25th story in USA Today. It took a while to percolate to the top of the stack, and it took a while to think about what we think about it. And Bottom Line Up Front: it’s probably the right thing for the Coast Guard and the Nation.

In an internal memo from Vice Admiral Robert Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant nominee says that starting in 2012, he would slash funding for programs in the agency’s homeland security plan that would include homeland security patrols and training exercises.

The memo, marked “sensitive — for internal Coast Guard use only,” was obtained by the Associated Press.

Papp’s outline is significant because it could mean major changes for the more than 200-year-old agency that took on a significant homeland security duties after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Obama’s 2011 proposed budget cuts for the Coast Guard already has caused outrage from some lawmakers.

According to Papp’s memo, he would scale back the Coast Guard’s counterterror priorities in favor of traditional search and rescue operations that save people in imminent danger on the water and maintaining the maritime transportation system.

In the memo, Papp said he wants to eliminate teams that are trained to respond to and prevent terror attacks. These teams also train other Coast Guard forces on counterterror operations.

Papp said the strike teams were created after the attacks “to fill a perceived void in national counterterrorism response capability.” He says in the memo that other federal agencies are better at this type of mission.


We agree. The Coast Guard rescue and safety mission, and the Coast Guard mission to maintain waterways and aids to navigation, are things no other service can do. And the thing is, concentrating on those missions does not take them out of the battle against seaborne terrorism. The mere fact that smart people are on the waterways and in the ports and harbors every day, knowing “what right looks like,” and alert to things that look wrong, is probably the very best thing they can do to prosecute the GWOT.

Anti-terror SWAT type teams are all very photogenic, and every agency and government boondoggle (even Amtrak) apparently has to have one, but the fact of the matter is that any first responder who has to deal with a major terror attack or hostage situation in the USA is going to get bigfooted by FBI. Whether that’s good or not, that’s the fact. And if it’s overseas, they’ll get bigfooted by JSOC. That’s just the way national CT doctrine rolls, and smart people roll with it, and don’t waste their resources trying to duplicate FBI-HRT or JSOC capabilities — you can’t match their decades of operational tribal knowledge, and you’d still get bigfooted even if you did.

Meanwhile, if you tried to get the FBI to maintain the channel buoys off Sandy Hook, you’d wind up with a freighter double-parked on East 18th St. or something worse. Horses for courses, people.

The US reacted spastically to 9/11, and it’s going to take years to roll back all of the ill-considered organizational bloat that resulted from not recognizing that we already had the organizations we needed in place. What we needed was to open channels of communication at lower levels. Instead we built castles of new sclerotic organizations with stovepipes paralleling the old, and we pushed some valuable agencies out of their own lanes into imitation counterterrorism. The disruption to the Coast Guard was mild compared to the pure waste of the Transportation Security Agency (3,000 payroll patriots hired at HQ alone, average salary there over $100k, times zero of them competent, equals zero contribution to national seucurity). You can similarly call out DHS (wait, hasn’t someone been covering homeland security pretty well since 1775 or so?), and DNI (yeah, we were too bureaucratic to catch 9/11, so let’s build another inside-the-beltway bureaucracy. That’ll work!). All these errors will have to be remediated, and the associated waste arrested, for us to return to the level of safety we had on the morning of 9/11 — because in fact, these new bureaucracies have left us less safe and worse off all round.

The only things that have been effective against terrorists are: intelligence-driven pre-emptive strikes against them, and increased vigilance by first responders and common citizens. The TSA hasn’t kept bombers off airplanes, but the flight attendants and passengers have beaten up and secured the bombers. An Army of Davids is out there.

The USCG is still the frontline of bright, talented people who are out and about in the stream of commercial traffic and pleasure boaters, saving lives, rescuing dumbasses, recovering the bodies of the ones that were too dumb to leave themselves any hope of rescue, and… and here is what their best contribution to the fight against terrorism is, and always was. Admiral Papp deserved better from USA Today, but then, so does everybody.

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