US Customs and Border Protection may start screening cruise ship passengers

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) currently checks passenger manifests for commercial airplanes to determine if any potential terrorists have booked a flight and it could start doing the same

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) currently checks passenger manifests for commercial airplanes to determine if any potential terrorists have booked a flight and it could start doing the same for cruise ships.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended Monday that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) examine the possibility of checking passenger reservations for cruise ships in much the same way that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does for airlines.

“Cruise ships are the single largest passenger conveyances in the world, with one ship currently in service that can carry more than 8,500 passengers and crew,” GAO said in its report, Maritime Security: Varied Actions Taken to Enhance Cruise Ship Security, but Some Concerns Remain. “The Coast Guard considers cruise ships to be highly attractive targets to terrorists, and according to a 2008 RAND Corporation report, cruise ships can represent high-prestige symbolic targets for terrorists. Moreover, terrorists have either targeted cruise ships or been able to board cruise ships in the past.”

In 2008 (the last year examined by GAO), more than nine million passengers sailed from US ports onboard cruise ships. The US Coast Guard is the lead agency charged with assessing risk onboard cruise ships as it holds responsibility for maritime security functions at DHS. The Coast Guard often provides escorts for cruise ships entering or departing US harbors.

But CBP has expertise in vetting passenger reservation data. It performs that function now for some international air flights. Indeed, CBP officers arrested suspected Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad at JFK International Airport in New York City May 3 after examining a passenger manifest for his Dubai-bound flight.

CBP also has performed analysis of cruise ship passenger manifests in the past as a means to analyze the level of risk various cruises might face from terrorism, the GAO report noted.

As such, CBP is well positioned to conduct a study to see if reports on passenger data from cruise lines would prove beneficial to protecting them from terrorist attack as well as to determine the best means of vetting such passenger data, GAO suggested.

“CBP, however, has not assessed the cost and benefit of requiring cruise lines to provide passenger reservation data, which in the aviation mode, CBP reports to be useful for the targeting of passengers for inspection,” the report said. “GAO’s previous work identified evaluations as a way for agencies to explore the benefits of a program. If CBP conducted a study to determine whether collecting additional passenger data is cost effective and addressed privacy implications, CBP would be in a better position to determine whether additional actions should be taken to augment security.”

DHS vowed to task CBP with undertaking such a study and to share the results of it with Congress.

Still, DHS presently does not consider cruise ships at risk of terrorist attack. A DHS report of January 2010 said that cruise lines faced no credible terrorist threats in the previous year.

But the Coast Guard recognizes cruise ships could be attractive terrorist targets due to the high loss of life that could occur in an attack as well as the economic damage an attack could do to the US tourism industry. To that end, the Coast Guard has been including threats to cruise ships in the implementation of the DHS Small Vessel Security Strategy.

Other federal agencies, cruise ship and facility operators, and law enforcement agencies have adopted other measures to protect cruise ships from terrorist attack, the report noted. Public and private entities have been sensitive to the threat to cruise ships in particular since the terrorist hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, when one passenger was killed in the ensuing fight.

Furthermore, authorities uncovered a plot to attack Israeli cruise ships in the Mediterranean Sea in 2005 after a bomb intended for use in the attack exploded prematurely, the GAO report said.

“A successful attack on a cruise ship in or near U.S. waters that resulted in the closure of a US port or discouraged cruise travel would likely harm the US economy because of the significant economic impact that ports contribute to the US economy,” the report said.

The Congressional Budget Office calculated that the closure of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would cost $150 million per day in a 2006 report. A terrorist attack that closed ports could cause a ripple effect, slowing down the demand for cruise travel for some time, crippling an industry that contributed roughly $19 billion to the US economy in 2008, the report said.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.