Inslee finds ferry threat 'sobering'

Congressman Jay Inslee said he will try to obtain federal funding for even more bomb-sniffing dogs at ferry terminals, in the wake of FBI reports that the Washington State Ferries have been under surveillance by suspected terrorists as recently as May 10.

Inslee, a Bainbridge Island Democrat, was briefed on the confidential FBI report last Wednesday.

While he found the information disturbing, he said Thursday that he remains assured there is no imminent threat to passengers on the ferry system, the largest in the world.

“It was sobering to hear the conclusion by the FBI,” Inslee said. The congressman noted that while 95 percent of the suspicious incidents investigated by the intelligence agency were discounted, the remaining 5 percent “led (analysts) to conclude that someone has been surveying the ferries, and that is not comforting.”

FBI analysts reviewed 157 suspicious incidents on the ferries, reported to authorities between September 2001 and May 2004, and found that 19 of them were “highly likely” or “extremely likely” to involve terrorism surveillance. The activities included people videotaping ferry operations, docks and vessels.

The 1st District congressman said he is convinced that the use of state troopers with explosive-sniffing dogs is the best method of deterrence, adding that he’d like to see additional teams put to work. Coast Guard officials ordered an increase in K9 teams at ferry terminals last week as part of an overall boost in security system-wide.

But many dogs and their handlers are borrowed from other police agencies.

“The problem is, we don’t have enough of them,” Inslee said. “Right now, there are a certain number of cars that are screened and I don’t think it’s adequate. It’s clear to me we need to beef up the number of dogs and handlers. If we’re spending $100 billion overseas, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to get some help at home.”

Inslee and fellow Rep. Rick Larsen (D-2nd District) said in a press conference at Seattle’s Colman Dock on Wednesday that they will convene a coalition of lawmakers from states with ferry transport systems, such as New York and New Jersey, in their quest for additional security funding from the federal government.

Implemented this spring, K9 security screening at ferry terminals cost the state patrol more than $400,000 over the last six months.

The expense does not include the cost of the newly implemented security measures, said officials, who declined to reveal how many dogs and troopers have been deployed to the docks, citing security concerns.

Adding more K9 teams would lessen the need to conduct random car searches in the event that screening is increased to coincide with heightened alert levels under Marsec, the three-tiered maritime security system serving shipping companies, ports and maritime operations.

The current status is Level One, meaning “normal.” But even at that level, random searches are allowed if there are not enough K9 teams to do the job.

“This method of screening is the best route to go,” said the lawmaker, marveling at the dogs’ “exquisite” sense of smell, which allows them to detect molecules of explosives even when such devices are creatively disguised with other scents.

“It’s a method that works, is safe, and does not violate anyone’s civil rights,” Inslee said. “We can solve this problem and keep it out of the courts by getting enough money for these dogs.”

It’s also important, he said, that security does not unduly interfere with commuters trying to get to work.

“I live on Bainbridge Island, and every day there are people running down the gangway at 6 a.m. with their toothbrushes in their mouth,” he said. “We can’t have these people stopping for random searches.”

While the dogs are mobilized to sniff out explosives in cars, the Coast Guard and the Washington State Patrol are working on a more effective method to check walk-on passengers with carry-on luggage.

Those passengers presently pass by a ferry worker with security training, and sometimes a state trooper, but they soon may have to pass by a dog as well.

“We are talking here about unknown threats, and we’re trying to be safe and not overreact,” Inslee said. “We can’t shut down these boats because of a potential threat. We have to get on with our lives.”

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