Editorial for Monday — August 25, 2003

• Semper Paratus

Semper Paratus

Every war has its winners and losers, and in the war on terrorism, one big winner has been the U.S. Coast Guard. The nation’s fifth, and sometimes forgotten, military branch is basking in new respect and the budget increases that go with it.

Over the years, the Coasties, as they’re sometimes known by the “real” military, have been bounced from Cabinet department to Cabinet department. Now the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, where it has gotten a billion-dollar budget increase and all sorts of new responsibilities.

Some say too much responsibility. “I refuse to say that,” said Vice Admiral James D. Hull, who commands the Coast Guard’s Atlantic operations, which include the Coast Guard installation here. In a meeting with Post-Dispatch editorial writers and reporters, Vice Admiral Hull said, “Our job is different now, but it’s not impossible.”

The United States has 95,000 miles of coast to guard, but the Coast Guard also is charge of inland waterways like the Mississippi River, marine accident investigation, search-and-rescue operations, licensing of maritime vessels, stopping illegal immigrants on the high seas and drug interdiction. The war on terrorism has forced the Coast Guard to devote more resources to boarding and inspecting vessels and cargo, and to insuring waterway security.

On the Mississippi, the potential for damage is real; a terrorist attack on a bridge or one of the locks and dams could cause major economic disruption. As difficult as it is to patrol the Mississippi, it’s a pleasure cruise compared to patrolling the coasts.

The United States has 100 seaports handling 60,000 visits by oceangoing vessels annually delivering 6 million containers, 3.7 million vehicles and 53 percent of the nation’s oil. As William Langewiesche points out in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, most of those vessels operate under foreign flags. Their owners are almost impossible to trace, and they are crewed by hundreds of thousands of foreign sailors.

Documentation is negligible; smuggling is a way of life. There is simply no way, short of disrupting international commerce, to inspect all those sailors and all that cargo, even for an organization whose motto is “Semper Paratus” – always prepared.

The Coast Guard must do the best job it can, but Congress and the Bush administration can help. Some of the Coast Guard’s duties can be transferred to other agencies. New technologies can be employed and new international agreements can be drawn up. If other countries want to do business with the United States, they ought to be willing to prove who they are, what they’re carrying and who’s sailing aboard their ships.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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