US Maritime Crisis: Uncovering The Ghost Admiral Steering The US Government's Most Secretive Agency
by Captain John Konrad (OpEd) How can you help Cato dismantle the Jones Act and undermine American shipping? How can you subvert crucial US Navy shipbuilding subsidies? How can you obstruct $1.1 trillion of infrastructure bill funding from supporting ports and marine highways? How can you perpetuate the influx of Chinese goods arriving at US ports on Chinese vessels? Simply refuse to answer the phone.
When esteemed naval scholar Jerry Hendrix arrived at the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) headquarters in Washington to discuss his notable article for The Atlantic, he encountered locked doors and vigilant security guards. Likewise, when Forbes journalist Craig Hooper and I attempted to meet with Commandant Ann Phillips following her scarce appearance at a Navy conference, she was conspicuously absent. The Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Commandant of the US Coast Guard remained to engage with the press, but Commandant Phillips – who some call the Ghost Admiral – seemingly vanished immediately after exiting the stage.
“I never got in to see her,” said Hendrix in a tweet. “I went to her office building and wasn’t allowed inside. I am still waiting for an appointment to get into the building. MARAD security is as tight as the Pentagon.”
Our response: don’t get your hopes up. Ann Phillips, the former US Navy Rear Admiral leading the nation’s most critical maritime organization and serving as Commandant of the US Maritime Service, is a ghost.
This is a crucial moment for shipping. The Jones Act faces fierce opposition. US ports struggle with insufficient funding. Shipyards are letting the Navy down. Wall Street funnels money into China’s shipping industry while American shipping languishes. European allies plead for LNG to address a dire energy crisis. US Merchant Ships confront threats and surveillance from Russian and Chinese warships. The UN asserts that world hunger hinges on maritime transportation.
MARAD has a pivotal responsibility in addressing these challenges, yet the ghost admiral remains conspicuously silent.
“MARAD employs more GS-15s and above than the number of US Merchant Marine ships in international service,” a former White House official revealed to Servicio-Marítimo. “Many of them transition to lucrative positions in Jones Act lobby groups, earning hundreds of thousands per year.”
Also Read: Shipbuilding Battle: Deep Dive On The Fight Between 3 Commandants And 1 Admiral
Democrats Vs Republican Maritime Policy
During President Trump’s administration, Maritime Administrator Commandant Mark Buzby instigated a tidal wave of change. He allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for training ships, activated the entire ready reserve fleet in significant naval Turbo Activations, personally handled media inquiries, engaged with sailors nationwide, and attended major events as a headline speaker.
Before Buzby’s tenure, George W. Bush’s Maritime Commandant Sean Connaughton consistently attended maritime industry events nationwide, frequently reaching out to Servicio-Marítimo and other media outlets personally. However, Democrat presidents have adopted a contrasting approach. President Obama didn’t appoint a Maritime Administrator during his first term, later selecting junior congressional aide David Matsuda for the role. Facing industry backlash, a lower-ranking Navy submarine officer, Commander “Chip” Jaenichen, was assigned to the position. Though Jaenichen participated in numerous high-level executive events and engaged with allies overseas, he seldom engaged with the press, attended operational-level conferences or spoke directly to the industry via social media outlets like YouTube.
Also read: Where is MARAD Administrator David Matsuda?
Global Energy Crisis Response
Phillips’ engagement has been even more limited. The few headlines she has made revolve around her evasive responses to Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s inquiries about LNG terminals during her confirmation hearings. Now, two and a half years into President Biden’s tenure, with the global demand for American LNG at a critical point, eight LNG terminal permits remain untouched on the Commandant’s desk.
Obtaining even basic information from MARAD can be a challenge. Official responses to simple inquiries often take weeks, and press releases are scarce (only four have been published this year).
“This is the most ineffective Commandant* we’ve ever encountered,” said a US shipping executive who asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from Commandant Phillips. “She’s also the only MARAD Administrator in decades I haven’t had the privilege to meet in person.”
*Phillips holds the title of Commandant of the US Merchant Service, but MARAD tends to avoid using this term. They officially prefer “Administrator Phillips,” as the agency often opts for terminology that downplays their role.
Not only are LNG permits gathering dust, but other crucial matters also remain unaddressed. The US Navy urgently needs more ships, and it falls to MARAD – not the Navy – to provide subsidies for shipyards. However, MARAD hasn’t completed a shipyard survey, which Wall Street lenders need to evaluate loans, since 2004. The US Navy’s Military Sealift Command is in dire need of mariners, but MARAD has failed to complete a manpower survey since 2017. The US vessel inventory report, which used to be published monthly, has ceased to exist under Phillips’ tenure. Mariners depend on vital MARAD security updates to keep their ships safe, but Phillips’ organization delayed posting Black Sea updates for months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (MARAD has only issued one security alert all year). When the updates finally arrived, they lacked the essential information that captains require to ensure their vessels’ safety.
Data And Statistics Have Gone Missing
The unfortunate reality is that obtaining classified information from an Air Force intelligence airman seems easier than getting a crucial statistic confirmed by MARAD. There is more public information about the National Security Agency (NSA) than there is about the agency in charge of developing the nation’s vast ports and waterways. This is not solely because MARAD officials are tight-lipped, but also because the organization has neglected to provide many of the basic statistics that journalists rely on. Even a few of the products that have previously earned praise for MARAD, such as Shashi Kumar’s US Naval Institute annual review of shipping, have been notably lacking in detail and uninspiring this year.
Despite ample funding, MARAD’s public affairs officer (PAO) position, a well-compensated GS-15 level role with a six-figure salary, has often been left vacant or filled by short-term appointees. After Admiral Buzby’s departure, MARAD recruited a highly-regarded US Air Force PAO, who stayed for less than a year. Sources within MARAD told Servicio-Marítimo that she left due to frustration. A senior MARAD official revealed to Servicio-Marítimo that every media release requires Phillips’ approval, and Phillips hesitates to release information without Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s personal endorsement. Buttigieg has shown little interest in maritime affairs. Although he is an active presence on social media with daily tweets to millions of followers, Servicio-Marítimo has been unable to find a single tweet mentioning Phillips during his entire tenure.
Buttigieg oversees a prestigious academic institution, the US Merchant Marine Academy, yet he has never mentioned it on Twitter. Promoting the academy could inspire many young people to apply, but Buttigieg, a former US Navy officer, doesn’t even retweet occasional USMMA posts. Currently, Buttigieg has over 3.7 million followers on Twitter, while the official USMMA account he neglects has a meager 1,350 followers. He has effectively ghosted the institution.
A Focus On Safety?
Servicio-Marítimo has spoken with numerous MARAD employees this year, and few have anything positive to say about the outreach efforts of the ghost admiral. Those who support her argue that she’s been working hard to address safety issues, primarily focusing on sexual assault problems following the Midshipman X scandal. However, this argument falls short. MARAD is not responsible for safety issues; that falls under the purview of the US Coast Guard. While it’s true that the Commandant has collaborated with Congress on EMBARC legislation and met with many students at maritime academies, she has not shared her efforts with the broader industry. She has not made any statements to reassure victims of sexual assault. She has not given Midshipman X any awards for coming forward. She has not produced any videos to update female merchant mariners on MARAD’s progress. She has not given a speech at the US International Maritime Organization (Buttigieg has) or engaged with the international maritime community. Furthermore, MARAD has not explained why the individual accused of raping Midshipman X is still sailing on MARAD-subsidized ships today.
Phillips has also failed to engage with the press. MARAD is one of the few government organizations legally tasked with advocating for the industry; it is quite literally the Commandant’s responsibility to actively support the US Merchant Marine. However, MARAD remains one of the most secretive organizations in Washington. When 60 Minutes contacted Servicio-Marítimo about doing a special on Navy shipbuilding, the producers where informed subsidies came from MARAD, but did not follow through. After ProPublica won the Pulitzer Prize for investigating Navy collisions, we asked them to look into MARAD, but they too hit a wall. When the port crisis hit our nation during COVID-19, numerous media outlets sought Servicio-Marítimo’s advice. We recommended contacting the department responsible for advocating for our nation’s ports, but not one of them got through.
MARAD’s absence extends beyond major media organizations. If you peruse the pages of industry publications like Freightwaves, Tradewinds, Journal of Commerce, Lloydslist, S-M 24/7, and others, you’ll struggle to find any mention of Commandant Phillips. Naval publications are similarly silent on the matter.
Even when media outlets evaluate the Department of Transportation on maritime issues, as demonstrated by Rachel Premack’s recent article, “Transportation Wonks are Mixed on Pete Buttigieg,” industry insiders they interview are either too frustrated or unaware of MARAD’s role to even mention Phillips or MARAD.
It’s rare and almost inconceivable that journalists would publish an article about commercial aviation without mentioning the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, every week, prominent media outlets report on ports, shipbuilding, and logistics without ever referencing the FAA’s sister organization, MARAD.
Why is this the case? Because it’s difficult to report on a government organization that consistently fails to pick up the phone or engage with the media.
Who Is In Charge Of Maritime Policy?
However, the most affected individuals are the operational-level US Merchant Mariners, longshoremen, drayage operators, tugboat crews, marine highway inland barge operators, crewing managers, dispatchers, port captains, and shipbuilders whose jobs are at risk due to MARAD’s failure to advocate for the Jones Act or subsidies for safety-critical infrastructure improvements. In the past few months, I have personally surveyed 47 operational-level managers, asking, “Who is the head of the US Maritime Administration?”
Out of that sample, only 2 correctly identified Commandant Phillips by name, 13 named the previous Commandant Mark Buzby, 21 inquired, “What is MARAD?” and the remaining respondents admitted they did not know.
The Navy relies heavily on MARAD to subsidize and support shipyards, as well as recruit and train shipyard labor that builds our nation’s warships and supplies them with Ready Reserve ships and a steady stream of Merchant Mariners for Military Sealift Command vessels. However, they seem to be even less aware of MARAD’s crucial role in naval security. When I asked 22 US Navy Surface Warfare officers, “Who is the head of the US Maritime Administration?”, only 3 were aware of MARAD’s existence, and not a single one could identify the person in charge.
MARAD IS Silent About Victories Too
MARAD is so elusive it does not even celebrate its victories. There are rare instances when MARAD proves to be highly effective. By outsourcing a significant portion of the oversight and planning to the corporate sector, including Korean firms that have imported safety-critical supplies from overseas manufacturers, the new training ships are being built close to budget and schedule – a rare accomplishment for American government newbuilds. However, MARAD has not made an effort to reach out to Servicio-Marítimo, and many other leading industry journalists, to arrange even a basic ship tour. Many within the United States Navy, an organization struggling to maintain delivery schedules, remain unaware of this achievement.
Lessons learned from this project could revolutionize naval shipbuilding but only if MARAD reaches out to teach the Navy the lessons learned.
The Jones Act
Today, the Wall Street Journal published a scathing article titled “The Jones Act Is Unconstitutional,” based on research from Yale Law School. The anti-Jones Act fellows at Cato are already working to formulate a response, but it’s a safe bet that our taxpayer-funded and congressionally mandated maritime advocates at MARAD will not. They have more GS-15s than the nation has ships overseas, but they rarely respond to even the most factually incorrect anti-Jones Act arguments. They never appear on YouTube, where today’s young mariners get their information. If they do so this time, it would be Ghost Admiral’s first publicly available appearance outside congressional testimony.
It is difficult to say that the Biden Administration has done little to support the US maritime industry, prevent the influx of Chinese goods into American ports, rebuild marine highways, or support US Navy shipyards. It is difficult to say because they do not talk about MARAD at all, and Commandant Ann Phillips remains elusive.
The Time Is Now
In the face of mounting challenges, increasing geopolitical risks, an aggressive China and deglobalization the US maritime industry is at a critical juncture. The future of our nation’s maritime strength, economic security, and global competitiveness hinges on the commitment and dedication of those entrusted with safeguarding it. The time for silence and invisibility is over.
Commandant Ann Phillips must step up, embody the true spirit of leadership, and become the steadfast advocate that the US maritime industry so desperately needs. It is not enough to merely occupy a title or fulfill a role behind closed doors. To truly make a difference, the ghost admiral must emerge from the shadows, bringing with her the passion, determination, and ingenuity that has made the American maritime industry the force it once was.
A revitalized and reinvigorated MARAD can serve as a beacon of hope, an anchor in these uncertain times, and a catalyst for innovation and growth. It can unite lawmakers, industry leaders, and maritime workers in a collective effort to reclaim America’s maritime prowess and forge a brighter future for all who rely on the sea.
Let us not falter or waver in the face of adversity. Instead, let us rise to the occasion, seize this moment of immense potential, and together, chart a course toward a new era of maritime excellence. The future of our nation’s maritime industry, and the countless lives and livelihoods that depend on it, now rests in the hands of MARAD leaders who are willing to stand up, be seen, and lead the way.
The Ghost Admiral must now answer the call and embrace her destiny as the torchbearer for American maritime success, for the sake of our industry, our nation, and generations to come.
If she is unwilling to say, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” then it’s time for President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg to either advocate for shipping directly or find someone to replace her. Unless, of course, being a ghost is part of the Democratic party’s plan—a ghost unwilling to stand up, rebuild ports, fund naval shipbuilding, and speak out about the steady flow of Chinese ships now flooding American ports.
If a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears it…
The reality is that Commandant Phillips is leading MARAD in some valuable – behind the scenes – efforts, such as completing new training ships, collaborating with state maritime academies, shipping supplies to Ukraine, and supporting the US military’s Transportation Command. However, these endeavors are severely constrained by their limited size and budget. Unfortunately, these crucial resources will not be expanded – and the broader industry can not grow or collaborate with international partners – unless the public becomes more informed and aware of the pressing issues at hand.
This is important because it is not just Commandant Phillips’ duty to advocate for the US maritime industry. It is the law. Congress has legally mandated MARAD to be an advocate. By remaining silent and being a ghost, she is breaking this law.
Also Read: Shipbuilding Battle: Deep Dive On The Fight Between 3 Commandants And 1 Admiral