By Eileen Sullivan and Scott Lindaw
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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-Qaida's weapon of choice in the maritime environment, given its ease in arming and deploying, low cost, and record of success."
Terrorists have used small boats to attack in other countries.
The millions of dinghies, fishing boats and small cargo ships on 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, said 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 said. "But the vulnerability is there."
To reduce the potential for such an attack, the Department of Homeland Security has developed a new strategy. Officials today will 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 — like a neighborhood watch program.
The government also plans to look to develop technology that would help detect dangerous materials and other potential warning signs.
The United States has spent billions of dollars constructing elaborate defenses against the possible use of large cargo ships by terrorists. Those defenses include 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.
As for small boats, though, "nobody knows a lot about them," he said.
Initially, the government considered creating a federal license for recreational boat operators, but that informal proposal was rejected immediately by boating organizations.
Homeland Security officials, including Coast Guard officials, have toured the country in the past year to sound out the boating industry and its enthusiasts. Although the government insists there will be no federal license, the strategy suggests the government is considering 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 said he and his officers regularly get intelligence reports about unknown or unrecognized boaters taking pictures of a bridge or measurements of a dam. But he said there aren't enough officers on the water to address every report.
The only way to police the waterfront "is to get as many of the participants who are part of that community to be essentially on your side," said maritime security specialist Stephen Flynn, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
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.
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 being planned.
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 new federal strategy is intended to create a layered defense, Allen said.
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.
Requiring minimum safety instruction might make the waters safer, said Mark Jambretz, 36, a recreational boater in San Francisco, but he is skeptical it would affect 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," Jambretz said.
However, Allen said the boater who is on the water every weekend knows where people fish and when a boat near critical infrastructure looks out of place.
"The small-boat community is not the problem," Allen said. But with the new federal strategy, he said, boaters would be part of the solution.
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The government defines small boats as any vessel less than 300 tons.