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May 7, 2004

House sticks to view that foreign-flag ships need U.S.C.G. approval of security plans

Democratic members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure yesterday issued a statement noting that the House is standing by language in its version of the Coast Guard authorization bill to require ships coming into U.S. ports to have a security plan specifically approved by the Coast Guard.

The bill is headed for a House Senate conference. While the Senate has yet to appoint its conferees, by a nearly unanimous vote of 395-19, the House voted to instruct its conferees to hold to the provision in the House bill that requires foreign-flag vessels serving the United States to have a security plan specifically approved by the Coast Guard.

The Democratic statement says that theCoast Guard has been allowing foreign vessels to have a security plan approved by their home country government.  The Senate version of the bill would affirm the Coast Guard's policy.  

Congress, notes the statement, included the security requirement when it passed the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002.  Shortly afterward, however, the Coast Guard agreed to amendments to the international Safety of Life at Sea Convention that, says the statement, in effect, preclude the Coast Guard from reviewing the security plan of a ship entering U.S. waters if the plan has already been approved by the government of the country in which the ship is registered.

During debate on the motion, Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), Ranking Democratic Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. Bob Filner, Ranking Democrat on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, stressed the importance of the provision. 

They pointed out that, for economy and convenience, many of these vessels are registered inwhat yesterday's statementr describes as "small countries noted for their lax enforcement of maritime safety regulations."

"The Coast Guard negotiated away the power of the U.S. to inspect the security plans approved by other countries and to see whether a vessel operating under a foreign flag is in compliance with the security plan of the country of registry of that vessel," Oberstar said.

"Look at some of the largest registries in the world, like Panama, Malta and Cyprus, and you will find vessels that are often detained by the Coast Guard for violations of international safety laws.  Now we expect those countries to protect U.S. citizens by making sure that their vessels have adequately implemented security plans," Filner said.  "I, for one, am not willing to delegate our security responsibilities to the government of Panama, Malta or Cyprus."

The motion received strong bipartisan support despite opposition from the Bush Administration. 

"Didn't the President of the United States say, and hasn't he said repeatedly, 'I will never ask permission of the United Nations to defend the United States.  I will never ask permission of a foreign government to protect the citizens of the United States.  We are not going to ask for a permission slip,'" Oberstar said.  "This treaty is a permission slip."

Oberstar said the basic issue is whether the U.S. will have the ability to see that incoming foreign-flagged ships were loaded in accordance with a security plan that meets our standards and protects our security.   "We do this already with aviation," Oberstar said.  "Why can't we do it for maritime?"

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