WASHINGTON—It could be a bomb stuffed in a car or truck or strapped around the waist of a suicide bomber. It could be a small boat filled with high explosives approaching, like the one that attacked the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in Yemen six years ago. Or it could be a small plane packed with explosives diving out of the sky.
Or terrorists might simply hijack one of Washington state's jumbo ferries with 2,500 people on board and aim it at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, which overhauls nuclear aircraft carriers and Trident nuclear submarines.
Although security has improved dramatically since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the ferries plying the waters of Puget Sound remain vulnerable, and intelligence suggests that terrorists are conducting surveillance and the ferries could be a target.
FBI and homeland security officials said no terrorist plots had been uncovered, but in the three years after Sept. 11, the FBI reviewed 157 "suspicious incidents" involving the Washington state ferry system, the nation's largest. Of those, seven were classified as having an "extremely" high likelihood of being pre-operational planning, 11 were classified as a "high" likelihood and 49 as "medium," according to briefing documents provided in late August to members of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"Intelligence suggests that WSF (the Washington state ferry system) is being monitored and may be a potential terrorist target," according to the documents, which were marked as sensitive but not classified. "Attacks on mass transit systems are increasingly terrorists' choice."
As for who's conducting the surveillance, the documents said, "The subjects involved in suspicious activities were associated with FBI terrorism investigations."
Some of these figures were reported previously by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, but documents obtained by McClatchy Newspapers provided additional details on the number of incidents that involved possible terrorist planning and potential ties to other FBI terrorism investigations
From spring 2004 to fall 2005, there were 247 suspicious incidents, said Ted Turner, a supervisory intelligence analyst at the FBI office in Seattle. The FBI thinks the increase is due to better reporting by ferry system personnel, the Washington State Patrol—which handles ferry security along with the Coast Guard—and from the general public riding the ferries.
Suspicious activity sometimes may involve a tourist taking pictures or asking out-of-the-ordinary questions, but the incidents that attracted attention from the FBI and other investigators "involved behavior out of the mainstream for either tourists or commuters," Turner said. He wouldn't elaborate.
"There is ongoing suspicious activity continuing to this date," said Coast Guard Lt. Mark Kneeland, who's involved in the Coast Guard's effort to protect the ferries.
However, Turner said, "We have not, after four years, been able to link a suspicious incident to a plan or terrorist group."
"We do not posses any specific or credible information indicating any threat to the Washington state ferry system," said Kirk Whitworth, of the Homeland Security Department.
The state's 28 ferries carry 26 million passengers and 11 million vehicles a year. The ferries make 500 trips a day on 20 different routes carrying commuters across Puget Sound and passengers to islands, such as Vashon or the San Juans, that are accessible only by boat. Alaska and New York also operate ferry systems, but Washington's is the biggest.
Before Sept. 11, the Washington ferry system's most pressing security issues focused on petty crime. Now they're all about terrorism.
"The worst-case scenario is a large truck bomb," Washington State Patrol Lt. Travis Matheson said. But he said attacks could come from the air, the sea or a passenger with a homemade bomb. "The ferries are considered very high risk and they are difficult to protect."
As with subways or other mass-transit systems, it would be impractical to search every passenger or vehicle coming aboard. The Washington State Patrol uses bomb-sniffing dogs to check vehicles that are waiting to board, and undercover troopers randomly ride the ferries.
Access to a ferry's pilot house, which once involved little more than a chain across a ladder with a sign saying "Authorized personnel," has been restricted.
Members of a highly trained Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team stationed in Seattle escort ferries in 25-foot boats to enforce a 500-yard security zone. The escorts are random, though on days when there's a big event such as a football game in downtown Seattle, the number of escorts is increased.
"We can't escort every ferry," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Leonard Tumbarello in Seattle. "We try to be random to keep whoever is watching in the dark."
Ferry system personnel have received training in spotting potential security problems, and each ferry is supposed to have a security plan.
The Coast Guard, the Washington State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies participate in training exercises involving ferries. In an exercise scheduled for next Sunday, SWAT teams will board a ferry hijacked by fictitious terrorists. The SWAT team members will board the ferry, which has been taken out of service and won't carry passengers, from other boats or by rappelling from helicopters to the deck. They also will use robots to search for bombs.
Officials know there's no way they can eliminate the risk of a terrorist attack on the ferries.
"Our goal," said Seattle Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Josh Reynolds, "is to harden the target enough to make the ferries a less attractive target and the terrorists go somewhere else."
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, rides the ferries almost every weekend to her home on Whidbey Island. She said security had increased but that there was no way to make riding a ferry risk-free.
"We're making progress, but it is a tough balancing act," Murray said. "If we started searching every vehicle it would bring the system to a standstill. We can't guarantee anyone's safety 100 percent anywhere in the nation, but we are making progress."
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., agreed.
"The threat is real and we need to take it seriously," he said. "If we went to an airport-type security approach it would break the (ferry) system. Everyone has to assume some risk."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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