Covering the waterfront

Charleston Post and Courier
Allyson Bird
August 11, 2008

Perhaps the best way to explain the enigmatic Project SeaHawk, a federally funded security task force with eyes all over the Port of Charleston, is through its boats.

There’s one equipped with a radiological-detection device. Another photographs the bottom of Charleston Harbor, searching for mines.

Then there’s the sleek black speedboat for SWAT team situations. A dive boat for search-and-rescue missions. And a few plain but peppy models for twice-daily harbor patrols.

Although each boat is branded with the gold and navy blue SeaHawk insignia, each also bears a more familiar name. Some belong to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, others to the Charleston, North Charleston or Mount Pleasant police departments.

A pilot program established in 2003 as a long-term response to al-Qaida, Project SeaHawk puts federal, state and local law enforcement together — in the operations center, in weekly briefings and in boats. And while the paramount task for officers attached to the project is preventing dirty bombs from coming through Charleston’s port, some days prove more mundane.

Just last week, as a SeaHawk unit set out on an afternoon harbor patrol, a man climbed over the fence on the Cooper River Bridge and pondered jumping.

First on scene in a boat below, sheriff’s deputy David White called back to dispatch: “It’s about to occur. … Yeah he’s definitely on this side of the fence.”

He asked his partners to ready an orange throw rope as he called ahead to have paramedics on standby at Remley’s Point.

By the time the man climbed back over the fence and into police custody, boats from the Coast Guard and Mount Pleasant police, along with another sheriff’s unit, had arrived.

“Good response time,” a sergeant called over.

From there, White steered the boat over to the State Ports Authority’s Wando Welch terminal and his unit’s original task: staring over at the container ships, up at the machinery and under the docks. What he and his two partners looked for: “Things that weren’t here yesterday,” White said without elaborating.

SeaHawk dwells in discretion.

The project doesn’t advertise its location, and a green film covers each window to deflect spy cameras. But for all its secrecy, SeaHawk wants to share some of its accomplishments now, as its coffers empty and its future becomes uncertain.

High-tech tools
Both here and in Washington, officials wonder what will happen to the program, the first of its kind funded by Congress to fill in potentially deadly security gaps.

Project SeaHawk operates through the Department of Justice, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office managing its finances. By next fall, its $46 million in funds will run out, and the project will fall under the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that didn’t exist when SeaHawk launched.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Shackelford, Project SeaHawk’s director, hopes the agency swap will mark little more than a formality.

“We plan to try to transition with as much of the capabilities created here as possible,” she said.

Those capabilities are the stuff of movies.

Rows of seats face a panel of flat screens in the operations center. Some show GPS on dispatched SeaHawk vehicles and boats. Others play real-time footage from around the port or key roadways. One shows the portal, an impressive tool itself.

Click on any ship logged in the portal to see the vessel history and its potential threat, where its crew is from and how each SeaHawk-affiliated agency will check it out as it traverses local waters.

Before this technology, law enforcement at the port sometimes repeated one another’s chores — and sometimes overlooked a few.

SeaHawk also boasts an arsenal of detection tools, from an ion scanner to find drugs and explosives to currency canines assigned to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

Trained to smell large sums of cash, the county’s first currency dog had its trial run on a cruise ship. SeaHawk Deputy Director Frank Gutierrez said the dog let all passengers off the ship until alerting on one man. Despite his empty pockets, the cruise purser had currency ink all over his hands.

Gutierrez said it’s the little guy, easy to overlook, who could pose the biggest threat.

A terrorist might be less likely to bring a nuclear weapon into town on board a commercial ship when he instead could try to sneak one in on an inconspicuous shrimp boat. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection scans all containers coming off ships, it can’t tackle every vehicle coming through — and the danger could lie inside a family sedan. So SeaHawk equipped a boat and a truck with radiological-detection equipment to fill that gap.

But, Gutierrez stressed, “We don’t drive it around town.”

Port of call

There’s one question SeaHawk officials can answer quickly and directly, because it comes up often: Of all the nation’s ports, why Charleston?

Residents know Charleston boasts an active commercial waterfront. It ranks sixth in the nation by container volume, handling the equivalent of 1.8 million 20-foot-long steel boxes a year.

But what most locals might not know is that 40 percent of ammunition and vehicles bound for the Middle East pass through here, Gutierrez said. And nearly all the mine-resistant, armored-protected trucks — also known as MRAPs — roll through Charleston.

The state’s economy and the nation’s security roost here. And so, every Wednesday for a half-hour, representatives from 47 law-enforcement agencies meet at SeaHawk headquarters. They share intelligence about both international terrorism and local crimes.

“They’re not focused on rapes and murders, but copper wire thefts. Things that could tie to the port,” Shackelford said.

The fruits of their work, according to Shackelford, are sometimes tough to quantify. “It’s hard to measure prevention,” she said.

But ports around the country followed Charleston’s model, and some of Project SeaHawk’s technology will become nationally streamlined under the SAFE Port Act. Savannah began a SeaHawk spin-off called the Maritime Interagency Center of Operations last year and, without its own funding, uses some of the technology developed in Charleston.

That’s a point of pride for SeaHawk’s directors. Even if they can’t tell the general public much about what they do, they can say that they did it all themselves.

“We’re not a federal agency heading a federal mission,” said Gutierrez, sitting in a conference room glowing green with film-tinted light. “We’re South Carolinians working our port holistically.”

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