Project Seahawk runs out of money

A Charleston County Sheriff Office's boat patrols the Cooper River last year as part of Project Seahawk. Oversight of the counterterrorism program is being shifted today away from the Department of Justice while funding for the program is in limbo.

Charleston's Project Seahawk ran out of funding Wednesday as oversight of the highly touted port security task force was being transferred to the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from the Department of Justice.

Homeland Security said Congress is considering a budget request for the program for fiscal 2010, but nothing had been finalized.

The Coast Guard takes over Seahawk as of today.

The change in administration, which has raised some concerns about Seahawk's future effectiveness, was announced just hours before the start of the federal government's Oct. 1 fiscal year for 2010.

Launched under Justice's watch about seven years ago, Seahawk was the nation's first collaborative counterterrorism effort set up to identify and respond to potential threats in U.S. waters and at U.S. ports, where the nation is said to be vulnerable to terrorists.

One of the task force's primary focuses has been to ensure none of the thousands of shipping containers that are off-loaded at local terminals on a typical day is carrying a dirty bomb or other weapon of mass destruction.

Seahawk 's diverse "unified command" members meet daily at a high-tech center at a secret location to exchange and analyze information about vessel movements in and around the Port of Charleston, one of the nation's busiest container-handling facilities.

In a statement, the Coast Guard said Seahawk's work will continue.

"We don't expect to make any immediate changes to Sea-hawk's daily operations," said Capt. Michael McAllister, commander of Coast Guard Sector Charleston. "We will continue to rely on the valuable participation of a host of federal, state and local agencies to make our team's port security efforts successful in the future."

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon described Seahawk as "unique," "highly successful" and vital to the security of the port. He said he has more questions than answers about the future of the program, which had paid for five full-time staffers who work for the task force through his department.

"It's just a lot of questions right now as to funding and what it will look like," Cannon said Wednesday. "No one really knows. You not only have the transition to ... Homeland Security and the Coast Guard, which has been in the works for quite some time, but you also have change of administration. I'm not sure they've quite figured out all these things. That further complicates the situation."

He said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been trying to address Seahawk's budget for several months. Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said Graham "is working on it" but had no further details Wednesday.

A former top-ranking Coast Guard officer in Charleston said Wednesday that he is concerned about shifting the oversight away from the Justice Department.

John Cameron, who retired as the Coast Guard's captain of the port at the Port of Charleston two years ago, is worried that Seahawk could lose some of its effectiveness and focus.

"While the Coast Guard is a great and noble agency, its sphere of influence is significantly less than the Department of Justice's," he said Wednesday.

Cameron, now assistant to the president of the Charleston Branch Pilots' Association, noted that the Justice Department's jurisdiction and broad law-enforcement power are "completely comprehensive," both on land and on the water.

"DOJ is everywhere," he said. "The Coast Guard is maritime and facilities on the waterfront."

Cameron also said that without a definitive funding source, antiterrorist experts who have been assigned to the task force could be recalled to their original employers. Under Justice, Seahawk reimbursed various agencies to tap into their talent pools.

"As time goes on each agency will have to decide if that person is more valuable to its mission. ... My concern is that over time that will taper off because there's no final incentive to keep sending people," Cameron said.

Task force participants include representatives from the Homeland Security, Defense Department, FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and other agencies. Also, state and local law enforcement, emergency responders, port officials and others take active roles in the joint operations.

Kelly Shackleford, who oversaw Seahawk for the Justice Department, said the transition to Homeland Security and the Coast Guard has been under way for two years. She said she will continue to work with the task force for the next few months.