WASHINGTON – U.S. ports remain vulnerable to the kind of speedboat attack that crippled the USS Cole and killed 17 sailors, Coast Guard Commandant Tom Collins (search) said Thursday.
Special precautions will be taken to protect the ports in Boston and New York during the upcoming political conventions, but the ports will stay open, Collins said in an Associated Press interview.
The Cole was in port in Yemen when a speedboat loaded with explosives rammed it and blew a hole in its side in October 2000. U.S. officials have warned Al Qaeda (search) favors such attacks. Also, a recent FBI bulletin warned that terrorist organizations may try to plant waterborne mines in inner tubes along America's coast.
Collins said port security has improved vastly since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he said it would be "very, very difficult" to intercept a small boat loaded with explosives and on a suicide mission.
He said there are about 58 million to 70 million recreational boats in the United States, in addition to pleasure boats and fishing vessels that come from foreign ports. International security standards that took effect Thursday do not cover any of them.
"Our net doesn't cover those right now," he said.
Collins said the Coast Guard is considering requiring fishing vessels and recreational boats from foreign ports to submit more information.
As for the political conventions, he said there are no plans to shut down the ports in New York or Boston nor to restrict pleasure boats. The Coast Guard does plan a "very robust" presence during the events and will be ready to increase security in case intelligence indicates a new terrorist threat, he said.
"We're just going to have to be very, very vigilant," he said.
The Coast Guard is working on forecasting what kind of shipping traffic will sail in and out of New York City's waterways during the Republican convention so it can figure out how to deal with any risk, he said.
Collins expects that liquefied natural gas tankers will not be allowed in Boston Harbor during the Democratic convention late this month. Boston is the only U.S. city with a liquefied natural gas terminal near a densely populated area.
Among the Coast Guard's new capabilities is intelligence coordination. It checks every visiting foreign ship crew member's background against multiple national security databases. It has an intelligence coordination center at the Office of Navy Intelligence and a center that tracks when oceangoing vessels enter U.S. ports, Collins said.
"Their main mission in life is to worry about intelligence associated with crew, cargo and vessel," he said.
The Coast Guard (search) has trained and deployed eight 100-person special operations teams to combat terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Armed sea marshals now travel on oceangoing ships. Eleven Navy patrol boats have been placed under Coast Guard command to protect U.S. ports. For the first time, Coast Guard helicopters are now allowed, if necessary, to fire weapons inside the United States.
The Coast Guard denied entry to, detained or removed six foreign ships of the 270 that planned to call on U.S. ports Thursday, the first day ships had to comply with the new security rules. Three freight vessels were trying to reach Miami, a passenger vessel was detained in Jacksonville, Fla., an industrial ship was restricted in Mobile, Ala., and a cargo ship was denied entry to Providence, R.I.
Collins also said in the AP interview:
— The biggest threat facing the Coast Guard is the age of its ships. More than 20 of 55 110-foot patrol boats — the workhorses of the fleet — have had their hulls breached over the past 2-1/2 years.
— The Coast Guard now has 11 vessels in European and Middle Eastern waterways to provide increased security for the oil industry.
— About three weeks ago, the Coast Guard broke its own record for cocaine seizures. It exceeded the 70-ton mark for the fiscal year, two more tons than its previous record.