Skip to main content

Small-boat debate: freedom vs. security

The threat of terrorism from small vessels is real, but will licensing all boaters make a difference?

The threat of terrorism from small vessels is real, but will licensing all boaters make a difference?

Terrorists charter a 45-foot fishing boat in Vancouver, British Columbia, load a dirty bomb aboard it, and spirit the explosives down the Inside Passage to

Read the other story in this package: If you see something, you should say something

Seattle. There, they pull up alongside a passenger ferry in the city’s inner harbor and detonate the bomb, killing 2,400 people on the ferry and contaminating 20 city blocks with radioactive material.

The attack forces evacuation of a large section of the downtown and causes billions in losses from disruption of the local economy. Far-fetched? Fanciful? Unfortunately not, says W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This scenario isn’t just grist for a Hollywood scriptwriter. Not anymore.

Jihadists — Islamic militants — “have vowed to attack our country again even harder than they did on 9/11,” says Basham, who spoke at a National Small Vessel Security Summit June 19 and 20 in Washington, D.C. Basham is taking the terrorists at their word and reasoning that small boats — recreational and commercial — are accessible to jihadists, they blend in seamlessly with traffic on crowded waterways, and they could serve as platforms for launching attacks on ports, ships, fuel terminals and — with a dirty bomb on board — large populations.

In fact, as the nation beefs up its security at airports, seaports and border crossing points landside, terrorists keep looking for other, more vulnerable avenues of attack. The intelligence confirms that. “They are looking for alternative pathways into the country,” says Vayl Oxford, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. One obvious alternative is the nation’s waterways and 95,000 miles of coastline.

Terrorists already have shown that they are adept at using small boats to attack targets, says Chris Merritt, chief of maritime threat analysis at the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center. Hezbollah terrorists have used PWC, inflatable boats and other types of small craft as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Israeli targets, he says. Al-Qaeda attempted to use an explosives-laden dinghy to sink the American guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans at a refueling dock in Aden, Yemen. The attack failed, only because the attack vessel was overloaded and sank soon after its launch from a beach. Nine months later, terrorists used the same attack plan against the USS Cole, detonating an explosives-laden skiff alongside the ship. The explosion blew a 40-foot hole in the destroyer, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39.

“Can Al-Qaeda attack us using maritime means?” he asks. It cannot be ruled out, he says. This was the underlying reason for the summit.

Hosted by the Department of Homeland Security, the summit invited several hundred“stakeholders” — representatives of commercial mariners, fishermen, pleasure boaters, marinas, boat dealers, manufacturers and marine police — to talk about ways of discerning who is operating small vessels in and around U.S. waters, and the risks they pose.

Basham says DHS — chiefly the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol — needs more and better intelligence on the 17 million small craft tooling around the nation’s ports, fuel terminals, bridges, nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure. They want to be able to “see” vessels and track them with new technology and know — to the extent that they can — who is operating those vessels. Their goal is to stop terrorists well before they reach their targets.

“We’ve got to figure out how to sort and detect targets of interest, and defend our borders as far out at sea as possible,” says Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant.

Small boats can be used to smuggle terrorists, weapons and explosives, or can be deployed as IEDs — boat bombs — or platforms for launching SCUDs or other small missiles. DHS is especially worried that terrorists will try to smuggle in a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps a dirty bomb. Customs already is scanning 90 to 98 percent of containers for radiological material at the nation’s borders, but a WMD is just as likely to come in on a small boat as a container, says DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, who addressed the summit.

“If all we do is worry about containers, it’s as if we’re locking the front door and leaving the back door wide open,” he says.

Nuclear specialist Oxford says every Coast Guard boarding team should have a hand-held radiation detection unit by year’s end. His office is working on developing detection units that can measure radiation on boats under way from 100 meters away. The question that remains is how to sort and identify suspect boats.

The Coast Guard has been designated the lead agency in talking with the small-boat community about beefing up waterways and small-boat security. The country has accepted the need for painful security restrictions at seaports, airports and border crossings, Allen says, but there still is no national consensus on what small-boat security measures are acceptable on the water in the post-Sept. 11 environment.

Historically, he says, anonymity has been the rule on our waters, particularly for small craft, but in the post-Sept. 11 environment DHS is working toward “transparency” — that is, ready identification of boats and operators. Last year the admiral began floating the idea of small-boat operator licenses and AIS, automatic identification systems, to help in sorting and detecting suspicious boats and operators. The proposals triggered some protest among pleasure boaters when first proposed and received a cool reception at the summit.

Licensing millions of recreational boaters and tasking the Coast Guard with administering the system would be “costly to develop, take years to implement and would not result in any appreciable improvement in security,” says Richard Schwartz, chairman of 670,000-member BoatU.S. He wondered why a driver’s license wouldn’t suffice as identification, since it already is used to screen travelers at airports. He also suggests using VHF radios’ digital selective calling feature to automatically identify a boat and its location from the digitized information embedded in its signal.

“We are opposed to AIS,” Schwartz says. AIS transponders, originally developed for ship traffic control in busy ports, transmit a signal that gives the vessel’s name, Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, call sign, length, beam, tonnage, position, heading, speed, destination, estimated arrival time and rate of turn if a vessel is turning. The Coast Guard requires the devices on most commercial vessels larger than 65 feet and has the authority under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 to extend it to small boats.

Chertoff says DHS had no preconceptions for small-boat security going into the summit. “We don’t want to come to you and say, ‘Here’s an edict from Washington. Take it or leave it,’ ” he says. “We want to listen to your ideas and carefully consider your concerns.”

The 2 million-member National Boating Federation also opposed operator licensing. Earl Waesche, its legislative director, characterized licensing as “expensive and ineffective,” and proposed instead requiring driver’s licenses or boating education certificates as on-water ID. He acknowledges the need to identify small vessels that pose security risks but says Homeland Security should do a comprehensive risk assessment first to identify areas where the terrorist risk is greatest. He says even the Vessel Traffic Service, which uses AIS to manage ship traffic in busy ports, is leery of requiring AIS on small boats, because their sheer numbers would overwhelm ship traffic controllers. Waesche proposes a cheaper version of AIS — one that operates on a separate frequency from ships — for boaters, an idea seconded by Jim Muldoon, chairman of the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, who proposes boats carry an even cheaper identifier: radio frequency ID tags. These tags, embedded with microchips, emit a signal enabling companies to identify and track shipments.

Waesche also urged the Coast Guard to require federally documented vessels to carry their documentation numbers on the hull and to merge state vessel registration and federal vessel documentation data in a national database accessible to enforcement officers from the water.

Schwartz suggests designating restricted-access security zones around sensitive infrastructure instead of adopting broader measures that infringe on boaters’ enjoyment of the waters. “Don’t infringe on our liberties just because we own a boat,” he says.

And just about every small-boat sector pleaded with DHS to saturate the waterfront with information about America’s Waterfront Watch, a 3-year-old program enlisting mariners to report suspicious activity, which they say most boaters know almost nothing about ( ).

Allen says current rules are creating a “bubble of security” around ports and requiring security measures for commercial vessels greater than 65 feet or 300 gross tons. The rules affecting these entities include 96-hour advance notice of arrival for vessels, a crew list 24 hours before arrival, AIS carriage requirements, long-range vessel tracking, port-risk assessments and security measures, worker ID cards for professional mariners and port workers, screening vessels coming into the country, screening ship containers for WMD, enhanced security at foreign ports, and integrated command centers at most U.S. ports.

“This does not cover what happens between ports,” Allen says. “What kind of surveillance systems do we want to create there?”

At the summit’s end, Rear Adm. Brian Salerno said the discussion would continue, with focus on these issues raised at the summit:

• Education — Boater awareness of the terrorism threat, what to look for in suspicious activity and who to call in tips to were big concerns.

• Credentialing — Many who spoke at the summit thought auto driver licenses or cards certifying that the operator had taken a boating safety course ought to suffice as IDs on the water.

• Tracking boats — “There is no plan in place to push AIS to everything on the water,” Salerno says. “It is on the table to expand use of AIS, but what should that look like?” There was talk of expanded use of AIS around ports or other high-security areas, better tracking of foreign-flag vessels or vessels from foreign ports, more use of advance notification of arrival at U.S. ports, and more boardings at sea.

• Registration — Small-boat operators repeatedly pointed out the advantage of standardized state boat registration and a single database of all state boat registrations that is accessible to law enforcement officers when they stop a boat on the water.

Cindy Squires, a lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, urged government rulemakers to find a fair balance that isn’t weighted down with unnecessary red tape, onerous restrictions or expensive equipment, and she reminded them that pleasure boating has to remain “fun and easy” to still be pleasure boating.

But the commandant warns the decisions ahead won’t be easy. “This is a knotty issue,” he says. “A difficult problem.”

The challenge, he says, is to reconcile enjoyment of our freedoms — including going boating — with protecting those freedoms.