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‘Eyes and ears’ needed to prevent terror

Government strategy would use recreational boaters to help thwart small-boat attacks

Government strategy would use recreational boaters to help thwart small-boat attacks

The Coast Guard wants to enlist pleasure boaters as its eyes and ears on the water and educate boaters as part of its new anti-terrorism strategy.

Released in April, the Department of Homeland Security’s Small Vessel Security Strategy says terrorists have used small boats in overseas attacks, so there’s good reason to suspect they would try to use them in a domestic attack. Homeland Security’s challenge is to identify potential threats among the 14 million small commercial and pleasure boats that use this country’s waters.

Major ports are particularly vulnerable, says Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, who spoke April 28 at the American Boating Congress in Washington, D.C., where he unveiled the small-boat strategy. “According to a 2007 U.S. Coast Guard study of nine U.S. ports, there were approximately 3,000 small commercial vessels, 3,000 fishing vessels and 400,000 recreational vessels in the vicinity of important maritime infrastructure in this country,” he says.

Boaters can help identify threats by reporting suspicious activity on the water, in marinas and around ports. “We want to increase public awareness and public incentives to report suspected terrorists or criminal activity,” says Chertoff. Homeland Security’s Waterway Watch is the “waterborne analogue to the neighborhood watch program. It uses the Coast Guard and its reserve and auxiliary components to enlist the help of everybody who lives, works or plays around the waterfront, so that suspicious behavior is reported to the National Response Center.” The telephone number for reporting is (877) 24WATCH.

Mandatory boater education already was in the congressional pipeline as Chertoff unveiled the anti-terrorism strategy. A mandatory education bill known as Brianna’s Law — for Brianna Lieneck, an 11-year-old who died in an August 2005 boating accident on Long Island, N.Y.’s Great South Bay — passed the House April 25 as an amendment to the $8.4 billion Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2008. The bill, which still needed Senate approval, instructs the Coast Guard to review state boater education programs and report back to Congress on them within six months, then develop a proposal for nationwide mandatory boater education.

Mandatory education would be helpful for both boater safety and maritime security, says Robert M. Gauvin, an advisor to the Coast Guard’s Office of Small Vessel Activities. Updated courses would teach boaters not just about safety, but what they should look for in suspicious activity and how they should operate in or near security zones. Boaters who complete a safety course would be certified, and those certifications would be administered through the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, Gauvin says.

Jeff Hoedt, chief of the Coast Guard’s division of boating safety, says the Coast Guard will not link mandatory education with any kind of boater identification, so whatever form the mandatory education takes, it will not involve a boater driver’s license. However, Gauvin says states could be asked to voluntarily pass certifications on to the Coast Guard, providing enforcement agencies with a database of certified boaters.

To screen potential threats, the Coast Guard wants to be able to draw information about boaters and their boats from a variety of sources: the Vessel Identification System, a national registry of boats, their owners, titles, documentation and registration numbers that the Coast Guard is compiling now with voluntary cooperation of states; the pleasure boat reporting system, which the Customs Service uses to track boat arrivals from international waters; Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement, a Coast Guard database of law enforcement stops and boardings, drug interdictions, oil spills and boat inspections; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Vessel Monitoring System, which monitors on-board transmitters to track more than 5,900 fishing vessels — a number that will grow by 2,500 vessels this year.

“We’re trying to develop a targeting system to reduce the threat and identify targets so we can use our resources properly and not frustrate the law-abiding citizen and the person trying to operate a business [on the water],” Gauvin says.

Homeland Security also wants better enforcement of reporting requirements for small boats entering the country. “During fiscal year 2006, only 70,000 boater foreign arrivals were recorded in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Pleasure Boat Reporting System, based on boater self-reporting,” Homeland Security says in its strategy document. “Conservative estimates suggest that these reporting figures represent only a fraction of the actual international boater traffic, especially given the ease with which boaters operate in these waters.” U.S.-flagged pleasure boats must report to customs when they arrive in the country. All foreign-flagged vessels — commercial and recreational — and U.S.-flagged vessels of more than 300 gross tons, along with some smaller U.S. vessels categorized as commercial, must report their arrival 96 hours in advance. Chertoff says Homeland Security is considering extending the 96-hour notice of arrival rule to smaller U.S.-flagged vessels.

Homeland Security says it’s impractical to try to survey the United States’ 95,000 miles of coastline or try to track every one of the nation’s 14 million small boats, but it does want to be able to track boats in “high-risk, high-traffic” areas. It just hasn’t figured out exactly how it will do that. It says it is investigating “low-cost, non-intrusive, small-vessel identification systems, such as radio-frequency identification tags, adaptable miniature transponders, portable GPS devices or cellphone-based recognition systems,” and presumably may require them for small boats in high-security zones.

“For example, if you’re in the area of a nuclear power plant that’s sitting on the water, we’re going to rightfully be a little more interested in who’s cruising around out there than if you’re off of Sandy Hook [N.J.] fishing out by the Ambrose lighthouse,” Chertoff told the delegates at the Boating Congress. He says Homeland Security doesn’t want boaters to feel like Big Brother is breathing down their necks wherever they go, but it does want to know who’s on the water near high-visibility targets. The department’s strategy document also sets as a goal further on-water testing of mobile detectors that can sense radiation or nuclear materials on boats.

Chertoff says reducing the small-boat threat while minimally encroaching on boaters’ enjoyment of the water requires cooperation between boaters and law enforcement and among the agencies tasked with securing the nation’s coast. Of particular concern, says Gauvin, is the possibility — even the likelihood — of terrorists working with immigrant and drug smugglers or other waterborne criminal elements to launch domestic attacks from small boats.

Homeland Security has identified four specific threats: that terrorists might sneak into the country on a production recreational or commercial boat; that they will smuggle a dirty bomb loaded with radioactive material onto a boat; that they will fill the boat with explosives and ram a cruise ship, bridge or other target; or that they will launch a missile from the boat.

“We saw quite vividly with the USS Cole attack [in October 2000] that violent extremists will not hesitate to use any means, large or small, in their efforts to inflict blows to our maritime assets,” Chertoff says.