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Friday, June 02, 2006

U.S. At Risk From Boats Packed with Explosives: Admiral

The United States must close security gaps that could let small boats packed with explosives slip into ports and stage attacks like the one that killed 17 personnel on the U.S. warship Cole in Yemen, the new Coast Guard chief said on May 31.

Adm. Thad Allen, who took over as commandant of the Coast Guard last week, said officials had to do more to help thwart such stealthy strikes, which could cause massive damage to ports, oil facilities, ports, cruise ships or tankers.

"Our own threat analysis and vulnerability analysis tell us there is a significant threat by vessel-borne improvised explosive devices," Allen told Reuters in an interview.

"We haven’t put nearly as much thinking in science and technology and (general) thought into the small-vessel threat as we need to, and I think that’s where we need to go next."

Allen is in charge of the United States’ maritime security, including along its 95,000 miles (150,000 km) of shoreline and at its 360 primary commercial ports.

As one of his first goals in office, Allen is devising a new security strategy over the next few months which will look at issues such as the small-boat threat, as well as the feasibility of licensing a broader range of boats or imposing exclusion zones around some high-risk areas.

Current shipping regulations, such as the United Nations International Ship and Port Facility Security code and related U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act, focus on large commercial ships, not the roughly 60 million U.S. recreational vessels.

There is no national registry or national system of operator licensing for recreational boats.

In the Cole attack in Yemen in 2000, two suicide bombers on a small craft laden with up to 500 pounds (225 kg) of explosives pulled up to the guided missile destroyer and rammed their boat into the vessel as it was refueling in the port of Aden.

Allen said there was no current credible intelligence of a pending maritime attack.
"What we do know is that the capability exists and the will to do that has been stated, and that we have the vulnerability here. So when you put one and one and one together, you get three," he said.

Allen said the vulnerability to small-boat attacks stood out during a Coast Guard threat assessment of major U.S. ports. He said authorities had far more experience in dealing with other threats, such as radiation, and would soon be able to inspect almost all cargo containers thanks to new technology.

"We’re only a couple of years away from having non-intrusive inspection technology that will allow us to see into containers and we’ll get good enough at it where we’ll get close to 100 percent," he said.

Currently only about 5 percent of the roughly 9 million containers that come to the United States each year are examined upon arrival. Officials check them largely on risk assessments.
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