Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: July 28, 2008
Location: Washington, DC



By Mr. BIDEN (for himself, Mr. Grassley, and Mrs, Feinstein):

S. 3351. A bill to enhance drug trafficking interdiction by creating a Federal felony for operating or embarking in a submersible or semi-submersible vessel without nationality and on an international voyage; to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008. The operation of unregistered, un-flagged, semi- and fully-submersible vessels to traffic narcotics and other contraband through international waters poses a serious threat to the safety of our communities and the security of our Nation.

Self-propelled semi-submersible water-craft, or SPSSs, can operate with a significant portion of their hull below the surface of the water, making detection very difficult. Recently we've seen an increase in the production and use of SPSSs originating in Colombia and embarking north in the Pacific Ocean with up to 12 tons of cocaine packed on board. SPSSs are typically less than 100 feet long, carry 4-5 crew, travel at speeds of up to 8 knots, and have a maximum range of 3,500 miles.

These submarines are often equipped with valves that allow the operators to quickly flood and sink the SPSS in the event of interception by law enforcement, sending the vessel and any drugs or other contraband on board to an unrecoverable depth. As the last part of the scuttling process, the operators eject from the SPSS, and law enforcement has no choice but to rescue them from the ocean in accordance with our obligations under international law. They avoid prosecution because no drugs are recovered. For the operators of these SPSSs, they are able to avoid prosecution--for now.

This bill turns the tables on the traffickers. It builds off of the good work by my colleagues Senators Lautenberg, Smith, Cantwell, and Snowe, who have a bill that criminalizes the operation of an unregistered, stateless semi-submersible or submersible vessel. The legislation that I have drafted would clarify that the defendant's intent in operating the SPSS was to evade detection, add a robust affirmative defense to protect legitimate researchers and explorers who may happen to use a semi-submersible vessel, include a tough criminal penalty provision to prosecute SPSS operators, and direct the United States Sentencing Commission to account for mitigating and aggravating factors in the Sentencing Guidelines.

As Chair of the Caucus International Narcotics Control and Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, I have worked to not only curb drug demand and increase treatment options, but also to drug traffickers and disrupt supply. This bill is an important step in curbing this emerging threat and shutting down this new mode of trafficking.

Between 2001 and 2007, there were 23 identified SPSS drug smuggling events. At the time, these vessels were largely seen by drug traffickers as risky and impractical. But after increasingly successful interdiction of go-fast boats and other means, drug traffickers began seeing SPSSs as a viable option. Between October 1, 2007 and February 1, 2008, alone, there were a reported 27 SPSS events that successfully delivered an estimated 111 tons of cocaine. At between $500,000 and $2 million per SPSS, they cost only a fraction of the profits these traffickers reap.

These vessels have the capacity to deliver more than just illegal drugs--an SPSSs could easily accommodate other contraband, like terrorist operatives and weapons of mass destruction in its cargo-holds. Their operation poses a significant danger to the United States and this legislation criminalizes their use while allowing for the continuation of legitimate research and exploring activities.

I want to recognize my friend Senator Lautenberg for his leadership on this issue. I look forward to working with him to enact a tough and fair law that disrupts drug trafficking and other illegal smuggling activities. I also thank Senators Grassley and Feinstein for their support, and I urge our colleagues to join us in supporting this important legislation.


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