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Watching Over the Waterways

​WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK ABOUT SMALL WATERCRAFT, they probably think fondly of good times and activities like waterskiing or fishing. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), however, thinks of how easy it would be for an attacker to weaponize one of these innocent-looking vessels, as was done in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and use it to wreak havoc somewhere in the United States’ vast maritime domain.

The United States has more than 95,000 miles of maritime coastline; 361 ports, including eight of the world’s 50 largest by volume; and 10,000 miles of navigable waterways on which approximately 17 million small craft operate routinely.

The economic activity carried out in and along these waters is immense. In addition to cruise ships, cargo lines, and fishing vessels that do business on the water, there are refineries, ports, and other critical infrastructure near the water. U.S. coastlines and waterways have been free of terrorist attacks, but America’s maritime assets may be the country’s soft underbelly—a vulnerable and target-rich environment for terrorists.

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USCG is the lead agency for preventing maritime terrorism. Currently, the USCG assesses the waterborne improvised explosive device (WBIED) threat as “moderate,” Commander Brian P. Hill, chief of the maritime homeland security section of the USCG’s District 11, said this past May at the 9th Annual Maritime and Transportation Security Expo in Baltimore. But this type of attack is not just theoretical. It has already happened elsewhere.

The most infamous attack occurred in October 2000, when al Qaeda attacked the U.S.S. Cole, anchored in Yemen’s port of Aden. Seventeen sailors died and another 39 were injured when a WBIED piloted by two al Qaeda operatives slammed into the Navy destroyer’s hull. It’s not a scenario the USCG wants to see copied on a cruise ship in the Port of Baltimore or against a fuel tanker at the Port of Long Beach.

The sheer size of the maritime domain makes defending against this type of threat a Herculean task. In an effort to address the problem in a way that doesn’t further stress limited resources, the USCG has begun to adapt the proven Neighborhood Watch and community policing models to the water. The idea is to educate and “enlist” those 17 million small vessel operators, as well as state and local maritime personnel, so that they can be additional eyes, ears, minds, and hands for the USCG.

The Threat

DHS lays out four primary ways terrorists could exploit the maritime domain to cause death and destruction. The most serious and likely threat is the aforementioned WBIED attack, used in the U.S.S. Cole attack as well as against the French oil tanker M/V Limburg in 2002, also off the coast of Yemen. Second, small vessels could be used to smuggle weapons into the United States, possibly weapons of mass destruction. Third, small vessels could transport terrorists onto American shores, exploiting the country’s most porous and unsecured border. And fourth, small vessels could be used by terrorists to sneak ashore for a strategic attack. The latter occurred during the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India. Ten jihadist terrorists from Pakistan came ashore on inflatable speedboats after launching from a fishing trawler they had pirated. More than 170 people were murdered in the attack as the terrorist commandos sowed chaos across the city for three days.

A successful attack in U.S. waters could have a devastating economic impact on the nation. In 2008, then-USCG Admiral Thad Allen noted in an article for the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings that the U.S. maritime transportation system adds $700 billion to the U.S. economy annually, calling it “the lifeblood of our economy.” To stress his point, he noted that when labor disputes shut down the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in 2003, the American economy suffered losses estimated at $1 billion per day. His point was clear: a successful maritime terrorist attack could do the same or worse.

And while the threat level may currently be considered moderate, maritime security stakeholders interviewed for this article all agreed that an eventual attack is likely—the only open question being when it might occur.

Force Multipliers

In January, DHS finally made public the main tenets of its Small Vessel Security Strategy (SVSS). The plan has been in existence since 2008, though it was not publicly released or fully implemented. (The full plan remains designated Sensitive Security Information.) The overall goal of the plan is to improve Maritime Domain Awareness, which, according to DHS, means “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact our security, safety, economy, or environment.”

The SVSS recognizes that the only way to do this is by teaming up with the small vessel community and state and local maritime agencies to share information and resources. As part of that effort, the USCG is partnering with the boating public and state and local maritime first responders through various awareness programs.

Waterway Watch. The first program established by the USCG in the aftermath of 9-11, long before the SVSS was developed, was America’s Waterway Watch (AWW). Through that first attempt to leverage private resources, the USCG asked all who regularly use waterways or who work or live near the water to be its “eyes and ears” on the lookout for suspicious activity. According to an AWW brochure circulated to boaters, suspicious activities include unusual diving activities, boats anchored near critical infrastructure, or individuals pouring liquids into a reservoir or a waterway that feeds a reservoir.

Upon observing suspicious activity, boaters can call a national toll-free number (877-24WATCH) to report what they have seen. The calls are routed through the USCG’s National Response Center, where personnel are available to take calls on a 24/7 basis. Calls are screened and forwarded to the appropriate authorities in the region where the suspicious activity was detected. If boaters believe what they are witnessing constitutes an emergency, they are encouraged to call 911 or to radio the USCG directly on marine channel 16.

The concept for AWW was sound, but maritime security stakeholders tell Security Management that the program’s execution has been lackluster, primarily because of funding problems. Two years ago, DHS’s Inspector General (IG) concluded that the USCG’s AWW outreach failed to reach approximately 90 percent of the country’s registered boaters. A running gag was that “we were the best kept secret in the Coast Guard,” says AWW Program Manager Ryan Owens.

To rectify that, Owens says the USCG is getting more creative about how to spread the word in a cost-effective way. One solution is to involve the Coast Guard Auxiliary, civilian volunteers who do boating safety education and inspections for small boat owners. The volunteers have embraced the AWW and help to market the program.

The USCG has also tapped the 40,000-member-strong United States Power Squadrons to get the word out about AWW and to educate boaters to report suspicious activity. The squadron is a volunteer organization devoted to boating safety, education, and instruction. In an effort to reach even more boaters, both the USCG and its auxiliary group have ratcheted up their attendance at boat shows and marina events across the country. The groups are also leveraging social media, aggressively using Twitter and Facebook.

These activities have increased the number of annual AWW calls dramatically. Between 2007 and 2009, the USCG response center received only 2,889 calls. In 2010, the call volume exploded to nearly 26,700 calls, an increase of 824 percent over the previous three years combined. “Our thinking is that the social media campaign, plus the excellent work provided by our CG Auxiliarists…contributed to this jump in calls,” explains Owens.

Despite the progress made in leveraging free resources, the lack of funding has an effect on how well AWW gets marketed. “It’s been difficult to put forward a comprehensive mass media campaign in this budget environment,” Owens says. John Fetterman, law enforcement director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), says that he is still “routinely disappointed” at the public’s awareness of the program.

More important than lack of awareness about the program are criticisms about how the program is administered. The DHS IG report noted that the USCG did not track the AWW phone calls handled by its National Response Center, concluding that “the Coast Guard is unable to determine the overall effectiveness” of the AWW program. The calls were investigated, Owens says. But no database of outcomes was developed.

Raynor Tsuneyoshi, national programs director for the United States Power Squadrons, voiced a similar critique. He says that people who took the time to report suspicious activity to the USCG never heard back from the agency. There was no two-way communication, says Tsuneyoshi, who believes that lack of feedback could hurt the program’s popularity and growth.

The USCG recognizes the need to change. “Ideally, what we’re looking at doing is enhancing the program to incorporate a much more dynamic relationship in the field,” Owens says.

Citizen’s Action Network. The answer to the lack of feedback is to morph from the current AWW model to what’s known as a Citizen’s Action Network (CAN). Originally developed in the Pacific Northwest by Coast Guard District 13, CAN tasks USCG officers, reservists, and auxiliary members with recruiting citizens living and working in port and coastal communities with excellent views of the water to keep their eyes out for anything suspicious. When a situation arises, communications flow both ways. CAN members can report anything they see to their local USCG sector, while local Coast Guard sectors can proactively reach out to certain members to get additional situational awareness when an event occurs in their area. DHS IG heralded the program as a national model that tracks “both the outcomes of the information provided and the degree of member participation.”

In the future, Owens says, an AWW call answered at the National Response Center will get routed to the Coast Guard sector where it originated. The USCG members in that sector will then reach out to the reporter and determine whether the suspicious activity report needs further investigation.

The USCG can also contact local CAN members, using its geographic information system, to see if its members can provide additional situational awareness to help assess the report, says Owens. Once the report has been fully investigated and a determination made as to its nature, a member of the USCG from that sector will contact the person who filed it and, unless it’s classified, fill him or her in on what action the agency took and whether what was witnessed was genuinely suspicious. Those interactions between CAN members and USCG sectors will be recorded locally, allowing sectors to evaluate CAN member performance. Once the policy is formalized, says Owens, sector field offices will deliver monthly reports on the program to USCG headquarters.

Another benefit of this approach is that as the USCG establishes good relationships with boaters and waterside residents who make reports, other boaters may get the word and be more inclined to become members of that sector’s CAN.

While AWW and CAN encourage boaters and waterside residents to do their patriotic duty to protect American waterways, self-interest should also be a motivating factor. “Nothing is going to have more of a negative impact on recreational boating or the legitimate use of the maritime domain than a security event,” says Fetterman. “If you have a horrible maritime terrorist attack in the Chesapeake Bay, I’ll tell you what, no one is going recreational boating in Chesapeake Bay for a long, long time.”

Focused Lens. A third program initiated by the USCG, called Focused Lens, uses community policing principles. Originally pioneered by Commander Hill within the Coast Guard District 11—which encompasses the Pacific Southwest—the program concentrates on finding the marinas and boat ramps that terrorists could use to launch attacks on critical infrastructure and soft targets. After determining a particular boat ramp or marina makes a good staging ground for a terrorist attack, the USCG plans on ramping up its presence around those waters through increased patrols and random boarding of small boats, mimicking a police officer walking his beat and establishing relationships in the neighborhood. Any boaters and residents who live around or frequent those potential high-risk launch sites will receive AWW training from the USCG Auxiliary to add another security layer of citizens on patrol, says Owens.

The program provides another way for the USCG to allocate scarce resources wisely. “Focused Lens helps Coast Guard Sector Commanders prioritize where threats may originate and helps them decide if and where to conduct patrols or [other] activity to bolster the security presence near select boat launch sites,” says Lieutenant Commander Michael Keane, division chief of maritime security and response at the USCG Headquarters Office of Counterterrorism and Defense Operations.

Focused Lens fits neatly into the post-9-11 landscape of intelligence-led policing that aims to detect and disrupt terrorist attacks before they can go operational. That’s critical because, as Hill notes, once a terrorist successfully hits the water with arms and explosives, it’s nearly impossible to stop an attack.

“If there is a vessel on the water with a bomb on it heading for a ship, they’re going to be successful,” Hill said at the Annual Maritime and Transportation Security Expo in Baltimore. “Even if we’re there, even if we’re escorting the ship, there’s a 99 percent chance that even if we’re shooting at that small boat with our machine guns, that they’re...going to be successful.”

While Focused Lens has not deterred or stopped a terrorist attack, Hill told the security expo’s attendees that in Sector San Francisco, the program has yielded ancillary benefits; it helped agents detect poachers, identify boating-under-the-influence hotspots, and discover maritime copper thefts and even some meth labs.

Training Standardization 

The personnel and resources of state and local maritime agencies dwarf those of the USCG. It’s a reality that the agency is well aware of and wants to exploit, except for one problem: state and local first responders do not receive the same standard of training as USCG employees. This discrepancy makes it difficult for local USCG stations to rely on state and local partners if they need help setting up a security zone around a piece of critical infrastructure or escorting a cruise ship, ferry, or vessel containing dangerous cargo in high-trafficked waters.

“Right now, a Coast Guard captain of a port may or may not have an idea of what their state and local partners know and what their abilities are on the water,” says Jeff Wheeler, the deputy chief of the USCG Office of Boat Forces. The result is a less secure maritime domain as state and local personnel and resources sit idly by, says retired USCG boatswain and port security specialist Mark DuPont.

But DuPont, in cooperation with the USCG, is trying to improve information sharing among agencies. In an attempt to standardize maritime safety and security training for law enforcement, he created the Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) program at NASBLA, where he is the program’s national director. The training for the BOAT program was adapted from the USCG’s own boat forces training program, which DuPont wrote.

The program, which consists of a series of discrete courses, each lasting five days, puts USCG personnel and state and maritime security first responders in the same classroom for the first time. Not only do they forge interagency contacts, says DuPont, but they learn a common operational language and practice response exercises together. As a result, if they need to coordinate a response in a real incident, they will all be following the same protocols and using the same terminology. Another benefit is that NASBLA brings the training to the agencies directly, which means first responders can train on their own equipment in familiar waters.

The USCG’s Wheeler has been impressed with the results. “About the third day in class, you really start seeing all these people come together [and] formulate training plans within their area; whereas in the past, you didn’t really see that,” he says. “This course…removes the wedge and brings all those folks together to all train in their harbor.”

Before DuPont developed NASBLA’s BOAT Program, state and local maritime law enforcement did not have the opportunity to learn how to stop a U.S.S. Colestyle attack on a cruise ship. “Before this existed, the only people who had that skill set were the USCG,” he says. But before 9-11, even USCG members lacked those skills unless they were among the units deployed overseas to protect Navy assets, DuPont notes.

Prior to the launch of this program, any training on emergency response that was provided either to USCG units or state and local maritime personnel within the United States was inconsistent. The events of 9-11 drove home the importance of ensuring that all of the various personnel responding to an incident follow the same game plan regardless of agency or jurisdiction.

Through the training of state and local maritime first responders to USCG standards, DuPont believes NASBLA and the USCG can revolutionize maritime security by creating the ultimate force multiplier for the agency. The more training state and local partners receive, the more confidence the USCG will have that state and local first responders can become interchangeable parts during maritime safety and security emergencies.

Currently, NASBLA provides agencies with training only when they request it. As of July, NASBLA has delivered 42 classes in 14 months, training a total of 727 students, 355 of whom were members of the USCG and 372 of whom were state and local first responders.

DuPont wants NASBLA to train all state and local maritime first responders, which he estimates to total about 20,000. That’s an ambitious goal, but Congress’s power of the purse could make it happen. Moving forward, DuPont wants to see Congress tie DHS maritime and port security grants to NASBLA’s BOAT program, thereby creating a de facto national standard.

Through AWW, CAN, Focused Lens, and NASBLA’s BOAT program, the USCG is helping to engender a cooperative community of people committed to defending America’s waters and waterside critical infrastructure from a small vessel terrorist attack. While each group alone is but a small tributary, their capabilities become deep and wide like the mighty Mississippi when they pool their resources. And that, says USCG Lt. Com. Keane, may “provide us the opportunity to break that chain of events that a terrorist would have to do to carry out an event.”