STUTTGART, Germany — The General Accounting Office found several “gaps” in the way the U.S. European Command implements anti-terrorism measures at foreign seaports, but the Department of Defense said it has already implemented steps to fix those problems.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found inadequate background checks for crews of vessels chartered by the Department of Defense and that not enough was done to ensure overseas ports being used by American forces were safe.

The U.S. military regularly uses charter ships to transport items such as helicopters, Humvees, trucks and tanks, as it did to bring equipment from the United States into the Kuwait City port for the Iraq war.

The GAO made several suggestions, such as mimicking a U.S. Coast Guard plan that fingerprints the captains of charter vessels using American ports.

The 38-page report was released in October. It was one of several the GAO has completed following the Oct. 11, 2000, attack against the guided missile destroyer USS Cole while it was in the port of Aden, Yemen.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for EUCOM, the GAO said, was receiving host country support in getting secure seaports.

EUCOM has identified 36 seaports it considers “core ports,” which is where the command focuses anti-terrorism efforts. At these ports, the DOD has longstanding relationships with the host nations, and they are able to provide greater security to visiting ships.

However, it is at the “non-core” seaports where the GAO said it has concern.

“When non-core ports are used, the limited self-defense capabilities of some vessels — particularly commercial vessels contracted by DOD to move equipment overseas — may leave these vessels at greater risk to hostile action,” the report said.

The GAO noted that non-core ports in Northern Europe were used in recent operations in Iraq to receive equipment shipped by rail from U.S. Army installations in Germany.

From Jan. 1, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2002, there were more than 700 military-related ship visits to non-core ports, even though there were elevated force protection levels during that time period.

“Noncombatant vessels do not have the same robust self-defense capabilities as combatant vessels; therefore, when these vessels visit non-core ports, they may be more vulnerable,” the report said.

Already, the GAO noted, EUCOM has worked with the Navy Military Sealift Command to implement crew screening, identification checks and placing security forces onboard certain vessels. It also has added more physical security at selected core ports, the GAO noted.

The DOD also has deployed armed military personnel on ships that carry critical cargo or military personnel or operate in sensitive areas.

To beef up security at select ports, EUCOM has deployed special naval units to vessels operating in inshore areas such as rivers and in coastal areas, has used waterside barrier systems that can deter small-boat attacks and the Navy is planning to install waterside security systems, such as swimmer detection systems and video cameras.

One challenge, the GAO said, may be getting help to patrol the ports.

“While the host nation officials told us that they want to be supportive of U.S. requests and requirements, they often believe that those requests infringe on their national sovereignty and frequently exceed the measures they employ to protect their own forces,” the report said. “Officials of these countries are often resentful of being treated the same way as countries in other parts of the world that do not have the same shared history and ties to the United States.”

In responding to the GAO report, Michael A. Westphal, the DOD deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said host nations are often more than just reluctant to help protect a seaport.

“It should not be assumed that there will be sufficient cooperation from allies to make this a workable program,” Westphal wrote, referring to a GAO suggestion to work with host nations to improve seaport security. “They are generally quite adamant in their refusal to allow armed patrol craft in their waters or armed entries on the pier.”

Westphal also wrote that the DOD was moving forward to implement most of the GAO suggestions.

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