WASHINGTON – As boating season approaches, the Bush administration wants to enlist the country's 80 million recreational boaters to help reduce the chances that a small boat could deliver a nuclear or radiological bomb somewhere along the country's 95,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways.
According to an April 23 intelligence assessment obtained by The Associated Press, "The use of a small boat as a weapon is likely to remain Al Qaeda's weapon of choice in the maritime environment, given its ease in arming and deploying, low cost, and record of success."
While the United States has so far been spared this type of strike in its own waters, terrorists have used small boats to attack in other countries.
The millions of humble dinghies, fishing boats and smaller cargo ships that ply America's waterways are not nationally regulated as they buzz around ports, oil tankers, power plants and other potential terrorist targets.
This could allow terrorists in small boats to carry out an attack similar to the USS Cole bombing, says Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. That 2000 attack killed 17 American sailors in Yemen when terrorists rammed a dinghy packed with explosives into the destroyer. "There is no intelligence right now that there's a credible risk" of this type of attack, Allen says. "But the vulnerability is there."
To reduce the potential for such an attack in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security has developed a new strategy intended to increase security by enhancing safety standards. The Coast Guard is part of the department.
On Monday officials were to announce the plan, which asks states to develop and enforce safety standards for recreational boaters and asks them to look for and report suspicious behavior on the water — much like a neighborhood watch program. The government will also look to develop technology that will help detect dangerous materials and other potential warning signs.
The United States has spent billions of dollars constructing elaborate defenses against the monster cargo ships that could be used by terrorists, including strict regulations for containers and shipping.
"When that oil tanker is coming from the Middle East, we know everything about it before it gets here," said John Fetterman, deputy chief of Maine's marine patrol. But when it comes to small boats, he said, "nobody knows a lot about them."
Initially the government considered creating a federal license for recreational boat operators, but that informal proposal was immediately shot down by boating organizations. Coast Guard and homeland security officials have toured the country in the past year to sound out the boating industry and its enthusiasts. While the government insists there will be no federal license, the strategy suggests that the government consider registering and regulating recreational boats.
There are about 18 million small boats in the country, contributing to a $39.5 billion industry, according to a 2006 estimate from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Fetterman and his officers regularly get intelligence reports about unknown or unrecognized boaters taking pictures of a bridge or measurements of a dam. But he says there just aren't enough officers on the water to address every report.
The only way to police the waterfront, says maritime security expert Stephen Flynn, "is to get as many of the participants who are part of that community to be essentially on your side." Flynn, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, says treating boaters as allies rather than as a threat will go a long way.
The government has taken tentative first steps to secure the waterways, but at a much slower pace than the effort aimed at large container ships.
Small boats are not the top terrorist threat facing the United States, officials say. But the nation shouldn't wait to be attacked, said Vayl Oxford, the head of homeland security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. "We just cannot allow ourselves to get to the point where we're managing consequences," he said.
Oxford's office is leading two pilot programs that train and arm harbor patrols with portable radiological and nuclear detection equipment, starting with Seattle's Puget Sound. A similar program for San Diego is in the planning stages.
Many local departments across the country have been concerned with the small boat threat. The New York Police Department has scuba teams and marine units equipped with radiation detection that patrol New York waters. But few departments across the country have similar resources.
That is why the strategy is intended to create a layered defense that would create a national federal standard to operate a boat, Allen says.
The Coast Guard will work with states to establish minimum safety standards and ways to enforce the new rules. That may include requiring boat operators to have a copy of the safety certification on board with them and a piece of identification that links them to the certificate.
That's important, security officials say, because currently there is no uniform requirement for pleasure boaters to have identification on board with them on the water.
The government defines small boats as any vessel less than 300 tons.
The new strategy will not only create more awareness on the water, but additional state safety requirements could have other benefits: keeping boats shipshape and having their inspections up to date; more lifesaving equipment on board; and possibly fewer drunken people operating boats, said California's homeland security adviser Matthew Bettenhausen.
In 2006, there were 710 boating deaths, more than 3,400 injuries and close to $44 million worth of property damage, according to the latest statistics from the Coast Guard. Of the 710 deaths, 70 percent occurred on boats operated by someone who did not have boating safety instruction.
"To the extent you can limit those kinds of problems, that means there's more resources that can be focused on the terrorism-prevention mission," Bettenhausen said.
"This is the way you buy down the risk," said Mark Dupont, a senior intelligence officer with Florida's department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Requiring minimum safety instruction may very well make the waters safer, says Mark Jambretz, a 36-year-old recreational boater in San Francisco. But Jambretz is skeptical that it would have an impact on the terror threat.
"As long as you have sailboats or powerboats running up along a giant container ship — or any type of ship — you wouldn't be able to tell them from a boat loaded with anything else," he said.
But Allen says the boater that is on the water every weekend knows where people fish and knows when a boat near a piece of critical infrastructure looks out of place.
"The small-boat community is not the problem," he said. But he added that with this strategy, they would now be part of the solution.