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Security Lapses Found At San Diego Shipyards Despite Navy Rules

The HII San Diego Shipyard was repairing and upgrading the USS Chosin (left) and USS Comstock on Sept. 6, 2018.
Brad Racino
The HII San Diego Shipyard was repairing and upgrading the USS Chosin (left) and USS Comstock on Sept. 6, 2018.
Security Lapses Found At San Diego Shipyards Despite Navy Rules
Security Lapses Found At San Diego Shipyards Despite Navy Rules GUEST: Brad Racino, investigative reporter, inewsource

Waterborne security threats have been a top priority for the Navy since the 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. But I knew saurus investigative reporter Brad racino has uncovered security gaps at San Diego's shipyards that could be putting billion dollar Navy warships at risk. September boat trip on San Diego Bay took me past the downtown skyline and to a naval base San Diego the home port of the Navy's Pacific Fleet which houses dozens of warships along hundreds of acres of water sandwiched between the two spots like San Diego's three private shipyards B.A. systems ship repair ice San Diego shipyard and General Dynamics NASCO. Together they're responsible for building repairing and maintaining navy ships and the Navy pays them a lot of money to do that. More than two billion dollars since 2017 the warships are expensive so the Navy requires in its contracts that each shipyard provides security which includes patrol boats out on the water 24/7 guarding the ships. Yeah I knew source investigation has found that even though the yards are getting taxpayer money to provide those boats they're not always doing it. And the Navy has known about the lapses for at least two years. We wanted to fish want to have a good time but our minds were focused entirely on a vulnerability that needs to be addressed. Michael Owen served in the Marines and trained soldiers in antiterrorism force protection a few years ago. He and a friend were fishing near the three shipyards when they noticed a vulnerability. Our subconscious was aware of something that wasn't right. There were no patrol boats Owens said. And it touched a nerve for someone who specializes in anti terrorism and homeland security. And if we had a wetsuit and a tank some bad stuff could happen because we have the capability and a lot of people have capability it's malicious. So in 2016 Owen wrote to San Diego Congressman Scott Peters about the security risks. Peters is a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and forwarded the letter to the Navy Vice Admiral responded that the Navy was working to ensure the shipyards got into compliance. But two years later the security lapses still continue during three days in September October and November. I went out on the bay to see if security boats were patrolling the yards at HPI San Diego shipyard 0 boats guarded the billion dollar USS chosen a few hundred yards to the south one boat guarded six warships stationed at the systems naval regulations required to patrol boats for that many ships or one boat for every three. Finally a little further south the NASCO shipyard had one patrol boat for four Navy vessels NASCO later said one of those Navy ships essentially didn't count because it was a dry dock. So the yard was in compliance. We generally trust the military. You know I don't presume to tell the military how to do his job. I sat down with Congressman Peters in November after providing his office with photos and videos from my multiple trips on the back. I can't think of why they wouldn't have boats out there. And that is what the protocol provides so I knew or spoke to representatives from the three shipyards. All said they were in compliance with Security rules but didn't provide evidence that contradicts what our photos and videos show is an issue of concern both to me as someone who's responsible for the national response but also for me as someone responsible for the protection of people who work and live in San Diego and Peters's office has since reached out to the House Armed Services Committee to get the maritime security issues addressed. I suspect that the people who are leading the Armed Services Committee both Republicans and Democrats would want to get the answers as well. The Navy wouldn't answer specific questions from a news source about the apparent lack of compliance saying many of its security measures are classified. And joining me now is News Service reporter Brad racino. Brad welcome. Always good to be here. What kind of patrol boats should be protecting the Navy ships at the shipyards or are these navy patrols or private security patrols. No these are private security patrols because these are private shipyards it's not. It's very important just and these are not Navy facilities they're right next to Navy facilities. But these are private multinational companies that are required to provide their own security which they do through contracts with private companies. Is it possible that the patrols were in place but you just missed them. It's always possible at one point I I think I asked them I don't know if I asked the Navy or one of the shipyards or the boats invisible because you couldn't see them. But it's important to point out that it wouldn't really make sense for them to be hidden because the half the point of these boats is to deter a potential attack not just stop it but to let people know that there is a force out there deterring this kind of potential attack. Now the Navy is paying for these security patrols and if they are happening is there any indication that there's malfeasance involved. So here's what we know that the Navy is contracting with each shipyard for every ship that goes in there for repair or maintenance. Part of that contract requires security which requires waterborne patrol boats so these companies are allocating for that funding within their contracts. And they apparently are not providing it or have not been fighting it for years. I cannot say that there is I as a reporter cannot say that there definitely is malfeasance happening but I can say that they have been receiving taxpayer money for a service that they are appearing to not provide about how many Navy ships are there at the three San Diego shipyards in any particular time. So at the northernmost that HPI San Diego shipyard which most people may no use be called Continental maritime. There are two piers so there can be two boats back in September there were two boats and then my follow up trips. There was one at BEA Systems. There are four Piers and two dry dock so they can handle up to six boats and then at NASCO I believe it's about the same amount made possibly a couple more. They also build ships at NASCO so you're looking at anywhere from 14 to 15 16 ships at a time at maximum capacity. Now your report was on waterborne security for these ships. Did you find out anything about security on land at the shipyards or if it was any better. So we are looking into that. I don't have all of the data we have gotten some data about incidents that have happened at the shipyards police calls and such but I haven't analyzed it yet but I can just say that we are looking into that but I can't draw any conclusions yet. Brad what about the Navy's knowledge of these lapses. Is there any indication the Navy knew about the patrol boat problems before it was pointed out to them by Congressman Peters and Michael Owen. Right. So Michael Owen's letter was in May of 2016. I don't have any direct evidence showing that the Navy knew prior to that but I think it's a safe assumption to say that when Michael Owen wrote that letter in May that was not the day that it that the lapses began and the Navy has told me that they repeatedly audit each shipyard that they perform security reviews one of the spokeswoman for HIV San Diego told me that they have weekly audits. I don't have any proof that that's the case. I have asked for the audits any dates when they've happened the Navy has not provided them the shipyards have not provided them. So I think it's safe to say that these have probably been happening since prior to May of 2016. But I don't have anything showing that the Navy nothing in writing is showing that Navy was made aware of it before then. Did you ever find out what the admiral meant in his response that the Navy was working to ensure the shipyards got into compliance. You would think since the Navy is paying the bills just a phone call or two might do it. Yeah and that's kind of one of the most surprising things about this story is is the Navy is paying these shipyards to perform a service. It's been pointed out that shippers are not performing it and yet it's the Navy still has not seemingly done anything about it. In that letter Vice Admiral T.J. Moore wrote that they were going to have a full and open competition for another contract for security but he said in that letter that that wouldn't be happening for another year. So that was May 2016. He wrote that he was referring to a phone open competition a year later. But at that point those ships should have already been there and there were already security requirements in place for those ships that were there to have these patrol boats. So short answer no I haven't figured out what he meant by that I have reached out to the vice admiral and he hasn't responded so I couldn't get any any answers to that. Where does this issue stand now. Well since we started asking questions back in September and October as of now the B.A. has two boats in the water so they appear to be fully compliant. I have not been back out on the water in the last month or so so I don't know what's going on. San Diego or NASCO but I can say that we are going to be staying on top of this and especially with what Congressman Peter said in this story which is him asking the House Armed Services Committee for some kind of oversight or investigation into this. So will be keeping on top of it. Now you've referenced pictures and videos that you took when you were out on the bay. Where can listeners go to find them so they can go to New SourceForge on our website and see them they can also see some of them on our social media channels. I knew source on Twitter and on Facebook and we will continue to post them throughout today and tomorrow. I've been speaking with our new service reporter Brad Racino. Brad thank you. Thank you.

The private shipyards in San Diego responsible for protecting Navy warships have not been following security protocols meant to protect those billion-dollar assets, and the Navy was alerted to the lapses more than two years ago, an inewsource investigation has found.

The Navy knows the reality of waterborne threats, especially since the deadly terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. That’s why it ensures its contracts with BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair, HII San Diego Shipyard and General Dynamics NASSCO include money for protection – patrol boats, strong barriers and signage.

It’s all spelled out in a list of requirements the Navy demands of private shipyards that work on its vessels. It reads, in part, “A dedicated waterborne security boat shall patrol within 200 yards of the protected vessel.”

Yet Joseph Allen, a former Navy lieutenant commander, told a group of security professionals at a San Diego conference in October, “the vulnerabilities of the bay scare me.”

Asked afterward to elaborate, Allen told inewsource, “I’ve spent a lot of time on the bay and see security gaps that could put billion-dollar warships at risk. If someone decided to actively case this bay, they could see those gaps.”

Allen is the CEO of Six Maritime, which provides security services, including on San Diego Bay. He declined to disclose details about his company’s work.

But to his point about safety issues, multiple trips inewsource made to observe security procedures on the bay found BAE and HII San Diego were either not providing the required number of patrol boats within 200 yards of ships – or weren’t providing any at all. NASSCO also appeared to be in violation but later offered an explanation.

Documents obtained by inewsource show the shipyards’ lapses are not a recent development – the Navy was alerted to them at least two years ago.

“I can't think of why they wouldn't have boats out there,” Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said after learning about the security problems from inewsource.

Peters said it was “an issue of concern” to him, especially “as someone who's responsible for the national defense, but also as someone who’s responsible for the protection of people who work and live in San Diego.”

The Navy wouldn’t tell inewsource or Peters how much it pays the shipyards for security, and neither would the shipyards. Susan Lawson, a Navy spokeswoman, said the amount is “business/competition sensitive” and “its release would impact the Navy’s ability to secure required services at the best possible price.”

inewsource has pressed the Navy for more than a year for records detailing how much taxpayers are paying the shipyards for protection they are not always providing. The Navy will not provide the contracts but did email the following information:

– All shipyards are required to follow the security requirements and that agreement is included in every contract.

– Those requirements specifically say waterborne patrol boats must be present when port security barriers are not in place.

– The shipyards have security boats that are conducting patrols in compliance with those requirements.

Additionally, Lawson told inewsource in a November email that the Navy conducts regular reviews at the three shipyards in San Diego and has found “no significant concerns with security at those facilities.”

An hour after receiving that email, an inewsource reporter drove to San Diego’s downtown waterfront, got on a boat, took photos and videos of the lack of patrol boats at the yards, and offered to send them to Lawson.

A month later, on Dec. 7, a different Navy spokeswoman responded to inewsource, saying “there are no known issues of non-compliance by the private shipyards.”

inewsource also asked for the dates and findings from the Navy’s last three reviews of security at the shipyards.

Instead of providing that information, the Navy wrote, “The private shipyards in San Diego have maintained compliance with Navy security requirements.”

Three days of surveillance

The BAE, HII San Diego and NASSCO shipyards lie between Naval Base San Diego to the south and the Port of San Diego’s 10th Avenue Marine Terminal to the north. The Navy paid the yards more than $2 billion since 2017 to build, repair and maintain its warships, according to data from Propel San Diego.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin laid up at the HII San Diego yard during three days in September, October and November. inewsource observed no security boats guarding the billion-dollar asset – a federal requirement that came with the Navy’s $37.8 million contract for updating and improving the ship. Nor was there a boat guarding the USS Comstock, a dock landing ship that sat on the other HII San Diego pier in September.

HII San Diego, formerly known as Continental Maritime, is a division of the publicly traded Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest military shipbuilding company in the U.S. Last year, Huntington Ingalls agreed to pay $9.2 million to settle allegations that it violated federal law by knowingly overbilling the government for labor on Navy and Coast Guard vessels at its Mississippi shipyards.

A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls, Beci Brenton, told inewsource, “As a matter of policy we do not discuss the security measures we have in place, but they are adequate and do comply with the security requirements dictated by the Navy for the ships we have under repair at our facility. The Navy audits us weekly.”

inewsource then sent Brenton a follow-up inquiry, accompanied by photos, showing those measures were not in place.

“I have nothing further to add,” she replied.

A few hundred yards south of HII San Diego, six warships – worth billions collectively – sat at BAE Systems on Sept. 6. BAE’s contract with the Navy requires two patrol boats – one for every three warships – but during multiple passes on that day and on two follow-up visits, inewsource spotted only one.

BAE is a publicly traded multinational defense, security and aerospace company headquartered in London that employs more than 83,000 people. It pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government in 2010 and was sentenced to pay one of the largest criminal fines in the history of the Department of Justice’s effort to combat overseas corruption – $400 million.

A BAE spokesman provided a statement to inewsource that said, “The security of all our facilities is of paramount importance to BAE Systems. We work closely with the U.S. Navy to ensure all appropriate security protocols are in place. We do not publicly discuss specific security details.”

How to reach reporter

If you have a question or feedback for inewsource investigative reporter Brad Racino, email him at

Since inewsource began asking questions of the Navy, BAE has put a second boat in the water.

General Dynamics NASSCO is the southernmost of the shipyards. It is the largest full service shipyard on the West Coast and is part of one of America’s largest defense contractors – General Dynamics. inewsource observed four Navy ships in the yards on Oct. 24, accompanied by one patrol boat: Three ships laid along piers and one was in a dry dock.

NASSCO said the one boat fell under an earlier version of Navy rules that didn’t require patrol boats guard ships in dry dock.

inewsource asked for the proof behind that statement – a contract, for example – but NASSCO did not provide any.

The Achilles’ heel

Between renting an apartment in San Diego and crashing Flight 77 into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi-born terrorist Khalid al-Mihdhar also helped plan the deadliest terror attack against a sophisticated U.S. Navy vessel in history.

On Oct. 12, 2000, two terrorists approached the USS Cole in Yemen during a refueling operation. They stood, saluted, then detonated more than 500 pounds of explosives – ripping a 45-foot hole in the ship and killing 17 sailors.

The damaged USS Cole is shown with a 45-foot hole in its side following an Oct. 12, 2000, terrorist bombing in Yemen that killed 17 sailors is pictured in this undated photo.
Courtesy of the FBI
The damaged USS Cole is shown with a 45-foot hole in its side following an Oct. 12, 2000, terrorist bombing in Yemen that killed 17 sailors is pictured in this undated photo.

A government report released the next year found “waterborne terrorist threats proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the Navy’s counterterrorism program.”

Those threats “must receive more attention,” the report recommended.

Fifteen years later, security lapses at the San Diego shipyards caught the attention of Michael Owen, who served in the Marines and trained soldiers in Afghanistan.

Owen and his friend Brent Olds, who also served in the Marines, told inewsource in October that they couldn’t turn off their “combat mindset” while fishing near the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.

With a master’s degree in homeland security and trained in anti-terrorism force protection, Owen said he realized, “If we had a wetsuit and a tank, some bad stuff could happen, because we have the capability – and a lot of people have capability. It's malicious intent.”

“It wouldn’t have taken much,” Olds added.

“Not at all,” said Owen, who wrote about his concerns to Congressman Peters in 2016.

“There is an identified security risk to the ships in these private yards as there is not currently adequate security for them on the water side; they should have waterborne security patrols in front of them,” he wrote.

Michael Owen (left) and Brent Olds, who both served in the Marines, are shown on Oct. 12, 2018. They run VETality Corp., a nonprofit dedicated to employing veterans, and noticed security lapses at the shipyards while fishing on San Diego Bay in 2016.
Megan Wood
Michael Owen (left) and Brent Olds, who both served in the Marines, are shown on Oct. 12, 2018. They run VETality Corp., a nonprofit dedicated to employing veterans, and noticed security lapses at the shipyards while fishing on San Diego Bay in 2016.

Owen, who runs Vetality Corp. – a nonprofit focused on employing veterans – saw the gaps as an opportunity. He told Peters that dozens of veterans could be put to work if the Navy required the shipyards to comply with proper security protocols.

Peters’ office sent the letter to the Navy for a response.

A month later, Vice Adm. Thomas Moore responded that Navy departments were working together “to ensure that the commercial shipyards are in compliance with all applicable security requirements.”

A contract leading to a “full and open competition for waterborne security” will come out – in the next year or so, Moore wrote.

But if security is still a concern more than two years after Moore’s letter was written, Peters said that raises a question about whether the Navy “looked at it hard enough.”

“We generally trust the military,” Peters told inewsource last month. “I don't presume to tell the military how to do its job.”

The evidence inewsource presented “justifies taking the next step,” Peters said. His office has reached out to two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee to get the maritime security issues addressed.

“And I suspect that the people who are leading the Armed Services Committee – both Republicans and Democrats – would want to get the answer to this, as well,” he said.

How to contact House members

If you want to email San Diego’s congressional delegation about this story, click on their names: Rep. Scott Peters, Rep. Susan Davis, Rep. Juan Vargas, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Rep. Darrell Issa. If you want to contact members of the House Armed Services Committee, click here.