Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, made his case Friday before the National Press Club as to why Congress should fund the USCG budget and approve its request to streamline its operational command.
Allen is widely credited with improving the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Press reports praised Allen’s leadership, and you’d be forgiven if you came away from Douglas Brinkley’s book on the Katrina response (The Great Deluge) believing that the Coast Guard was the only non-dysfunctional local, state or federal agency involved.
Crisp and precise in his answers to media and audience questions at the Press Club luncheon, Allen brushed aside opportunities to criticize former FEMA Director Michael Brown and second-guess decisions at the Department of Homeland Security. Instead he focused on the challenges facing future Coast Guard border security and rescue missions with an aged and diminishing fleet. He noted that the post 9/11 mission for the Coast Guard placed additional demands on an already strained fleet and personnel, and suggested that Americans might be alarmed if they knew the nation’s premier marine lifesaving outfit could fit into the Washington Nationals’ new stadium.
Asked whether putting the Coast Guard under the new Department of Homeland Security was the right move, Allen said he felt that it was. He noted that there were plenty of opportunities to criticize DHS but asked how many private sector mergers of its size – a merger of 22 federal agencies – would have been done under the remarkably short timeframe required by the DHS merger. Any such telescoped merger would have ongoing issues and challenges that would require ongoing attention.
Also of interest was Allen’s conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for the recently passed congressional mandate that all cargo security undergo 100 percent physical scanning. More than once during his comments, Allen noted that while cargo security is important, it is hardly the only threat. He suggested that an unfocused security strategy of attempting to scan all cargo in all ports as if they all created equal threats wasn’t in line with the layered security approach favored by most homeland security experts. Asked for some specifics, he cited ports with liquid natural gas as requiring a completely different security approach than other ports.
To drive home his point, Allen quoted one of his predecessors, Admiral Jim Loy: “If you’ve seen one port, then you’ve seen one port…”