Testifying to a congressional subcommittee, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia today urged the federal government to provide more assistance to protect the international security asset known as the Houston Ship Channel from potential terrorism, border incursions and other illegal activity.
The Sheriff’s Office, which is the lead law enforcement agency of the Houston Ship Channel Security District, has succeeded at coordinating the efforts of industry and city, county, state and federal governments, Garcia said.
“But I am taken back at how difficult it is to get the necessary support through programs like (U.S. Department of Justice grants) to make sure we can continue to deter or detect terrorists,” the sheriff said. “We all want to meet the highest expectations of our community, of the nation and of the world, but we need your help.”
The Port of Houston leads the nation in foreign tonnage and the Ship Channel area is home to petroleum refining, chemical manufacturing and commercial waterway traffic that are key to the global economy. Intelligence from the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound indicated the terrorist group had considered targeting the kind of oil tankers that routinely travel in the Channel.
The Sheriff’s Office has secured this strategic part of Harris County in several ways, the sheriff commented, but “at the end of the day it comes down to the ability of someone to patrol in a patrol boat or a patrol car.” Funding for more personnel “is not something I want, it’s something we need,” he added.
Garcia testified today to the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, who refers to waterways shared with or near Canada and Mexico as the U.S.’s “liquid borders.” The subcommittee includes Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, whose districts include parts of Harris County.
The sheriff explained that his agency works with the U.S. Coast Guard and Merchant Marine to secure the Ship Channel with boats, cameras, sensors, fiber-optic communications system and other forms of technology. A team of sheriff’s deputies patrols the waterway, but a county-wide hiring freeze and other funding obstacles have prevented the Sheriff’s Office from reaching the staffing levels envisioned by the community’s stakeholders, he said.
Members of the committee pointed out that Congress is trying to cut federal spending, but that providing for homeland security is crucial.
Miller, the chairwoman, said Congress will provide less funding, not more, to local government agencies in general. But, she said, “the first and foremost responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the common defense. That is in the Constitution.”
Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia, said it appeared the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s Ship Channel work would usually be the federal government’s responsibility.
“I’d say here, even as a strong fiscal conservative, (that) we have to make sure you are funded,” Rigell said.
The sheriff will continue to communicate with subcommittee members about funding.