Seeing Times Square cleared out twice in recent weeks provides unpleasant evidence of our vulnerability to a terrorist attack. But people did come back into Times Square, and it's tough to imagine that area without wall-to-wall crowds. But what if the area's near-miss with an SUV had instead been a small craft with a home-made bomb drifting near a huge cruise ship in a major U.S. port?
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In an extensive investigation and analysis of cruise ship security, the U.S. Government Accountability Office generally gives high marks to the industry and the maritime safety and law-enforcement agencies tasked with protecting cruise ships. Still, nearly everyone associated with cruise ships is sensitive to the possibility that a single terrorist act could inflict huge losses on the industry. While loss of life is the paramount concern in safety efforts, the loss of billions of dollars in bookings would represent a body blow that might extend for years.
"A successful attack on a cruise ship in or near U.S. waters that resulted in the closure of a U.S. port or discouraged cruise travel would likely harm the U.S. economy because of the significant economic impact that ports contribute to the U.S. economy," the GAO report said.
In 2008, more than 9.3 million passengers boarded cruise ships in U.S. ports, with roughly 3,900 cruises emanating from 30 U.S. ports. The ships continue to get larger, and so do the security stakes. For many reasons -- visibility, predictable sailing schedules, and large floating targets -- the GAO says the U.S. Coast Guard considers cruise ships to be "highly attractive targets to terrorists."
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The good news is that the National Maritime Intelligence Center did not have a single credible terrorist threat against cruise ships in 2009. There has been a sustained increased in overt efforts to protect cruise vessels, including providing Coast Guard escorts, more aggressive reviews of crew and passenger manifests, and stepped up security by the cruise lines themselves.
The Coast Guard conducted 1,900 investigations of cruise ship facilities from 2006 through 2008, and found 347 deficiencies. The report did not disclose how serious they were but most were corrected at the time of the inspection. During the same period, the Coast Guard conducted more than 1,500 inspections of foreign-flag cruise vessels. It found 18 security-related deficiencies. "Federal officials and cruise ship operators we interviewed reported that cruise lines implemented security measures beyond what is required of them," the GAO said.
Among possible security threats, a waterside attack involving a small vessel is regarded as particularly worrisome. "The U.S. government has limited information on recreational vessels," the report said, "and it is difficult to detect a small vessel attack without prior intelligence." The GAO said the Coast Guard is testing a program called Operation Focused Lens to raise public awareness of small vessels, and is working on a round of additional security regulations by next year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already provides passenger and crew screening for cruise ships. The report said it is considering requiring a more extensive information profile on passengers for its screening programs.
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