HII San Diego Shipyard, Jan. 24, 2019
The USS Chosin and USS O'Kane sat unguarded at the HII San Diego Shipyard during two passes on Jan. 24, 2019. (Brad Racino/inewsource)

HII San Diego Shipyard continues to ignore federal rules designed to protect billion-dollar Navy warships it repairs, despite an inewsource investigation last month that revealed shipyard security lapses and drew the interest of a local congressman.

Why this matters

San Diego is the principal homeport of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, and waterborne security threats have been a top priority for the Navy since the deadly terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

The Navy pays hundreds of millions of dollars each year for HII, BAE Systems and NASSCO-General Dynamics to build, repair and maintain its warships. Under their contracts, the companies must provide patrol boats to protect the cruisers, destroyers and other amphibious boats they service along the heavily trafficked San Diego Bay.

The three shipyards lie between Naval Base San Diego to the south and the Port of San Diego’s 10th Avenue Marine Terminal to the north.

inewsource toured the bay last week — roughly six weeks after publishing a story about the security lapses — and found BAE Systems and NASSCO to be in full compliance. Each had one security boat patrolling for every three Navy warships under repair, which is what federal contracts mandate.

However, the USS Chosin and USS O’Kane, a cruiser and a destroyer worth nearly $2 billion collectively, sat unguarded at the HII shipyard during two passes on Thursday. inewsource shot video and photos of the scene and shared the video with HII spokeswoman Beci Brenton.

“Our security boats are on the water and we are in compliance with the Navy’s security requirements,” Brenton replied.

When asked to point out where in the video the boats were, she replied, “While not readily visible in your video, we do have security vessels in the water, in addition to other security measures which meet the Navy’s requirements.”

Discussing the details of HII’s “comprehensive security system would be counterproductive to our efforts,” she said.

The Navy told inewsource Friday it is working on a response to questions about HII’s lack of security.

Waterborne attacks a threat to Navy’s fleet

The Navy recognized waterborne terrorist threats as its “Achilles’ heel” after terrorists easily maneuvered into position to bomb the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding dozens more.

A government report released after the bombing recommended those threats receive more attention. The Navy now ensures shipyards that service Navy vessels – private companies with federal contracts – adhere to specific guidelines to protect the assets.

The Navy’s list of requirements in shipyard contracts includes one that states: “A dedicated waterborne security boat shall patrol within 200 yards of the protected vessel.”

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A monthslong inewsource investigation, which included multiple surveillance trips on the bay, found both HII and BAE Systems were 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.

inewsource also discovered the Navy was alerted to the security gaps more than two years ago by Rep. Scott Peters. The San Diego Democrat had received a letter in May 2016 from Michael Owen, who noticed the lapses. Owen served in the Marines and has a master’s degree in homeland security.

“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,” Owen wrote.

The Navy responded to Peters that it was working to get the yards into compliance. Two years later, the gaps persisted, yet the Navy told inewsource, “there are no known issues of non-compliance by the private shipyards.”

Peters said in a November interview that his office would be taking the next step, and has reached out to two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee.

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. Mike Levin. If you want to contact members of the House Armed Services Committee, click here.

We’ll let you know when big things happen.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...