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 nation’s 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 nation’s 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.

“That’s the dual part of what the headlines should have mentioned,” said Ned Kiley, WSF’s company security officer. “The maritime security level has not gone up. If there was an eminent threat there’s no doubt the Coast Guard would raise the security level.”

The report, conducted by the FBI’s Threat Monitoring Unit, reviewed “threat information reports” from September 2004 to September 2005. The FBI’s 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.

“There’s no additional danger to the boating public,” he said. “We’re 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. “There’s a high number of these (suspected incidents) partly based on the sheer number of people using the state’s 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 FBI’s 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 public’s 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.

“We’ve sensitized people and certainly the media and many reports have (made terror) highly visible,” he said. “The public is concerned and (the report) shows they’re staying alert.”

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