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Security stepped up at Winslow terminals

More state troopers and bomb-sniffing dogs went to work screening cars and passengers at Washington State Ferry terminals starting this week, meeting a U.S. Coast Guard deadline to boost ferry security system-wide.

The heightened security comes as officials acknowledged concerns about the vessels being vulnerable to attacks, and amidst new reports that the ferry system is under surveillance by terrorist groups and individuals, according to FBI documents obtained by a Seattle newspaper and published over the weekend.

The intelligence agency reportedly determined that out of 157 suspicious incidents under investigation by federal agents the past three years, 19 were “highly likely” or “extremely likely” to involve terrorism surveillance.

Those incidents included picture-taking and videotaping of ferry terminals, operations and vessels by people of presumed Middle Eastern descent, several of whom are the subject of FBI terrorism probes, according to analysts cited in the published report.

While officials have been careful not to link the stepped-up surveillance to any particular threats or incidents, Capt. Fred Fakkema of the Washington State Patrol said Monday that the information is not new to those in law enforcement charged with keeping passengers safe.

“The highway patrol is not going to go into any specific details, but this type of information has been available to us for a long time, and it is the kind of information that we have prepared for,” Fakkema said.

The number of new security teams on patrol is confidential, he said.

“We are not going to talk about how many dogs or troopers we have put out there, for obvious reasons,” Fakkema said. “We don’t want to give up any strategic plans. You will see an increased uniformed presence, but we also have aerial surveillance, plainclothes officers, and a lot of things that we haven’t talked a lot about.”

Ferry officials this week firmly stated there is no connection between the elevation of security that began Saturday, and the FBI reports of alleged surveillance by terrorists.

“There is no link,” said Jim Anderson, director of marine operations for the state ferry system. If there were an imminent threat, he said, a three-tiered system of maritime alerts, known as Marsec, would be triggered. Level one indicates normal operations, and level three is the highest level of alert.

“We’re still at level one, the basic level,” Anderson said. “But the Coast Guard did decide that we should increase screening at this basic level. It’s just an increase in the level of deterrence.”

Coast Guard officials similarly sought to stem fears of a looming threat, saying the stepped up screening of passengers are part of a “continual and ongoing evaluation of our needs for increased security,” said Chief Petty Officer Paul Rhynard, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C.

He said the entire nation is in a “period of increased risk,” due to unspecified threats of terrorism during the upcoming “election and an inauguration” of a U.S. president.

“We haven’t received any specific information, but it’s related to the risk around the election, things in the world being the way they are,” he said. “But all of this was coming down for a while. We have been trying to give the ferry systems time to get up-to-date.”

At the Winslow terminal Tuesday morning, State Trooper Bill Henkel led Butch down row after row of cars, instructing the 8-year-old yellow Lab to sniff under vehicle bumpers and wheel wells for the stuff it’s trained to root out: explosives.

The officer/K9 team was among three groups working the docks as commuters in their cars waited for the 9:40 a.m. sailing for Seattle.

“People have been overwhelmingly positive and pleased to see us out here,” Henkel said, as he patted his partner.

Ferry passenger Tom Coulter of Kingston said he had no objections to the dog searches, saying, “Honest people don’t have any reason to have a problem with it, now do they? It doesn’t hurt to be cautious.”

Some commuters shrugged at the prospect of more security at the terminal, saying the presence of troopers and dogs had little effect on their sense of safety.

“When you take into account the number of people who ride ferries, airplanes and drive cars, statistically I feel pretty safe,” said Paul Robinette of Indianola, as he waited for the boat to Seattle. “The security measures will help, but as far as making me feel safe, no.

“If someone is desperate enough (to carry out an attack), it doesn’t really make much difference.”

Ferry officials announced the heightened security measures in a low-key press release two weeks ago, noting that in addition to stepped-up patrols of ferry holding areas, random searches would be permitted if ordered by the Coast Guard, under new guidelines approved by the state Attorney General’s office.

Such searches will be allowed when there are not enough dogs and handlers to do a thorough search of the cars in the terminal holding area, Fakkema said

“Utilizing the canines is less intrusive than random searches, they do a lot more vehicles, and they are a lot more efficient than human beings” for detecting explosives, Fakkema said. “We are trying to keep people safe while being sure that individual rights are respected, so that we can live in that positive world that we all want.”

Veteran ferry commuters have been through this before. Random searches were implemented as a precaution against possible terrorist threats in 2002, and then abandoned after civil rights groups and lawmakers questioned their constitutionality under the Fourth Amend­ment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizures.

Washing­ton’s ferry system, the largest in the world, is considered a prime terrorist target because an explosion on board could cause a high number of casualties, officials said.

The ferries transport roughly 25 million people per year, compared to the 27 million annual passengers who pass through Sea-Tac Airport.

“When you see the security measures at Sea-Tac, and compare them to those at the ferry terminals, there is a better understanding of why the new security measures are necessary,” Fakkema said.  

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