– Executive Summary –
History has shown that homeland security is a learning process and an evolution, whereby threats are identified, and strategies and policies are developed and implemented. Those strategies and policies are occasionally tested in the real world and refined to adapt to the new threat landscape. The modern homeland security apparatus is characterized by overlapping and interconnected legal and jurisdictional responsibilities that intertwine response agencies and require a whole-of-government response.
This thesis provides a comprehensive understanding of the Maritime Operational Threat Response (MOTR) Plan and how it successfully connects federal organizations to adapt to and deal with threats in the unique environment of the maritime domain. This thesis identifies several crucial elements of the MOTR Plan that offer adaptability for other areas in federal, state, or local governments and international partners interested in interagency collaboration.
A reorganization of the federal government in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, created a plethora of new policies and procedures. This restructuring produced overlapping interests and responsibilities that require cross-disciplines, jurisdictions, and authorities to manage threats appropriately. To adapt, the federal government developed several strategies and frameworks for organizing these disparate departments and agencies. Two examples of these frameworks are the National Response Framework (NRF) and the Joint Interagency Task Force–South (JIATF-South).
While both examples organize departments and agencies, they take different approaches. The NRF provides a “unity of effort” model, whereby responders are organized and directed by an incident commander or unified command toward a common goal. The JIATF-South model utilizes a top-down, military, “unity of command” approach, whereby responders are focused on a single mission and take task direction from a single command.
There are many challenges in getting multiple agencies to work with one another. Trust must be built, information must be shared, resources must be obtained, and all of it requires funding. In addition, many agencies may claim primacy in areas where there is shared responsibility or jurisdiction, leading to ambiguity and animosity among responding parties. The National Security Council (NSC), restructured under the Bush administration, has overcome many of these challenges and established national policy across the federal government. This feat was made possible by a mandate and the ability to resolve differences in pursuit of a desired national outcome rather than individual interests.
Examining the maritime domain reveals that it holds physical and legal complexities and complications that challenge homeland security professionals. The vastness of the open ocean and intricacies of the nation’s many port complexes create ideal conditions and ample opportunity to exploit security gaps. Threat response in the maritime domain is accompanied by multiple departments and agencies with overlapping responsibilities, as with the NRF, JIATF-South, and NSC. The difference in the maritime domain is that no one “owns” the oceans, and no department or agency has legal authority and jurisdiction to operate without the assistance of partner agencies. This raises the question of how agencies will coordinate their actions for maritime threat response.
The Coast Guard saw these challenges well before 9/11 with the attempted defection of a Lithuanian seaman, who jumped from his Russian fishing boat onto a Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. As a result of the failed communications and unclear protocols between the Coast Guard and the State Department, the seaman was beaten and dragged back to his boat by the Russian crew, an episode seen as a failure of the U.S. government.
From this event, the federal government realized the need for a better way to organize agencies for maritime threat response; that way would become the MOTR Plan in 2006. In drafting the plan, several models were considered, but none fit the unique requirements of the maritime domain quite like the NSC model. While not entirely the same, many elements that make the NSC work can be found in the MOTR Plan.
Since the development of the MOTR Plan in 2006, it has been used daily to coordinate response activities for threats in the maritime domain. Often, these are routine incidents that help participating agencies decide how to handle illicit maritime drug or migrant smuggling. The MOTR Plan, however, can also scale up to mitigate larger threats, such as ambiguous threats involving potential terrorist activity, delicate diplomatic matters, and significant piracy events, like the kidnapping of the U.S. Merchant Captain Richard Phillips aboard the Motor Vessel Maersk Alabama.
A thorough analysis of what MOTR is and how it came to be followed by examples of the MOTR Plan in action offers a perspective into why it has been successful and potential opportunities for its use elsewhere. The research concludes that the MOTR Plan is the backbone of a process for interagency coordination where no single agency can act alone. A full-time staff that maintains the plan as the executive secretariate, coupled with the flexibility of the plan, afforded through revisions and the addition of new protocols, keeps the document relevant and applicable.
This thesis finds that the MOTR Plan and all the elements that make it successful may not be universally adaptable. However, they may be best applied in areas where there is no plan or ownership of the space, such as airspace, cyberspace, or even outer space.
 Janet A. St. Laurent and Jacquelyn L. Williams-Bridgers, Interagency Collaboration: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight of National Security Strategies, Organizations, Workforce, and Information Sharing, GAO-09-904SP (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2009), 1, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-09-904sp.pdf.
 “Homeland Security,” U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Issues, accessed August 6, 2022, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/issues/homeland-security.
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