Tips from boaters about suspicious activity on the water can help prevent terrorist attacks, but the public is largely unaware that their help is needed.
Tips from boaters about suspicious activity on the water can help prevent terrorist attacks, but the public is largely unaware that their help is needed. That was one message that came through loud and clear at the Small Vessel Security Summit.
Read the other story in this package: Small-boat debate: freedom vs. security
“Most boaters have marginal awareness that the government is concerned about the threat from the water,” says Jim Muldoon, chairman of the National Boating Safety Advisory Council. The nation’s waters are the pleasure boaters’ playground; they don’t feel vulnerable there. “We must increase their awareness of the danger,” says Muldoon, who spoke at the June 19 and 20 summit in Arlington, Va.
America’s Waterway Watch, a program enlisting the eyes and ears of recreational boaters and commercial mariners, has been in place three years now, but few have heard of it. The small-boat community wants the Coast Guard to saturate the boaters’ world with information about the program and with this message: “See something, say something.”
“We can be your eyes and ears,” says James Ruhl, president of Commercial Fishermen of America. “We can be sentries. Our industry provided vessels for national security in two world wars.”
As did pleasure boat owners. The Coast Watch program of World War II enlisted many skippers in scanning the coast for spies and U-boats, and gave rise to the growth of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Lt. j.g. Brian Zekus, program manager for Waterway Watch, says he’s not enlisting anyone in any organization, only asking them to keep a lookout — not for “suspicious people” but for suspicious behavior, behavior that is unusual or in some way raises a red flag.
Zekus advises taking notes. Get a description of the people, what they are wearing, and any boat or car they are using; the boat’s registration or car license plate number; the location, and what they are doing. Then call (877) 24WATCH — or 911 if an attack appears imminent. Zekus says it’s important to leave your name and phone number so investigators can call back and get more details, if needed.
“They follow up, generally, on every report,” he says.
Zekus says a report of suspicious activity may not by itself be conclusive evidence of terrorist activity, but combined with other information it could be helpful or even crucial to an investigation. He says Abdul Malike, a New York cab driver convicted of lying to the FBI about his seeking information on bomb-making, first came to authorities’ attention when a Miami tour-boat operator reported that Malike — a passenger on his vessel — was taking a lot of photos of the I-95 bridge over the Miami River and asking questions about its construction and whether boats are allowed to anchor under it. More recently, six men were charged with planning attacks on soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., after a store clerk tipped off police that one of them ordered DVD copies of a video of men shooting and calling for jihad.
“These are perfect examples of how a little bit of information can help,” says Zekus. “It may not mean much to you,” but report it anyway.
Be aware of suspicious activity around bridges, tunnels, overpasses, ports, fuel docks, cruise ships, marinas, industrial facilities, and military bases and vessels. Suspicious activity could include note-taking, sketching, shooting photos or video, or asking pointed questions; hanging out around critical facilities; unusual debris in the water or along the shore; unattended boats or vehicles in unusual locations; lights flashing between boats; unusual diving or night operations; any activity not normal for an area; anchoring in unusual places; or unusual transfers between boats or between boats and shore.
Zekus says information called in to 24WATCH goes to the NationalResponseCenter. He says the response center receives about 900 reports a year through Waterway Watch. “You could have 100 people looking at the same thing, and maybe 10 of them know about Waterway Watch and maybe only one will call it in.” It could be important information, he says.