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Ferry terror: How real is the threat?
Recent news stories are incomplete and overblown, security officials say.
The FBI and other security agencies are downplaying recent reports highlighting the state ferry system as the nations top maritime terrorist target.
At this time, there is no specific, credible intelligence information indicating an attack is planned against the ferry system, according to a statement issued jointly by the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI, state patrol and Washington State Ferries.
Recent headlines and Seattle television news coverage pointed to a U.S. Department of Justice report citing an FBI investigation of possible threats to the nations seaports.
While the report points to ferries in the Seattle area as the most likely targets of maritime terrorism, security officials said this week that terror threat levels have not risen significantly in the last two years and are not expected to rise in the near future.
Thats the dual part of what the headlines should have mentioned, said Ned Kiley, WSFs company security officer. The maritime security level has not gone up. If there was an eminent threat theres no doubt the Coast Guard would raise the security level.
The report, conducted by the FBIs Threat Monitoring Unit, reviewed threat information reports from September 2004 to September 2005. The FBIs investigation covered ports, commercial vessels, coastal military installations and passenger transportation systems across the nation.
According to Coast Guard spokesman Rick Rodriguez, the FBI report has not sparked changes to existing security measures or an increase in patrols.
Theres no additional danger to the boating public, he said. Were as safe today as we were the year before and in past years.
Recent media coverage failed to adequately note other important sections of the report, Kiley said.
In the study, the FBI places the ferry system as a likely terror target assuming the data is indicative of pre-operational (terror) activity.
This key passage was possibly overlooked in media reports, said Kiley.
Most of the incidents were cleared as unrelated to terror activity, according to the FBI.
Of the 68 maritime-related incidents listed in the report, nearly 70 percent were categorized as suspected surveillance. Many of these incidents were based on reports from ferry riders or ferry terminal visitors who suspected others of shooting pictures or taking video recordings for state ferries to terror-related aims.
Nearly all of these incidents were quickly found to be tourists taking pictures or other non-terror related activities, said Kiley.
Anyone can report suspicious activity and we act on all of them with an investigation, said Rodriguez. Theres a high number of these (suspected incidents) partly based on the sheer number of people using the states ferry system, which is the largest in the country.
The remaining 30 percent of reported incidents were classified as suspicious activity, security violations and other.
The report itself further casts doubt on the scope of the FBIs investigation
The Justice Department noted that FBI officials expressed concern that the threat information reports were limited in scope and not representative of all the maritime suspicious incidents.
The FBI plans to correct several of the weaknesses in its ability to collect and analyze suspicious activities and other security incidents, the report states.
The publics concern about terrorist attacks may have led to a high rate of suspicious activity reports.
While the vast majority of investigation into these incidents led to no arrests, Kiley said ferries packed with people remain a logical target for terrorists. Both Kiley and Coast Guard officials praised riders for their vigilance and for notifying law enforcement of suspicious activities.
Weve sensitized people and certainly the media and many reports have (made terror) highly visible, he said. The public is concerned and (the report) shows theyre staying alert.