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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Why feds believe terrorists are probing ferry system
By Mike Carter
Groups of men, including one tied to a federal terrorism investigation, have videotaped Washington ferry operations, prompting federal authorities to conclude the system has been under surveillance as a possible target for an attack.
U.S. Attorney John McKay, officials in the U.S. Coast Guard and other members of Seattle's Joint Terrorism Task Force all share in that conclusion.
"We may well be the target of preoperational terrorist planning," McKay said.
A confidential FBI assessment of the threat to the state ferries is partly behind an increase in security for large-capacity ferries nationwide, McKay and others say.
The state ferry system is the nation's largest, carrying 26 million passengers last year. It began implementing new security requirements including tripling the number of cars screened for explosives this weekend.
For its assessment, the FBI gathered 157 incidents on or near ferries that law-enforcement officers, ferry workers and passengers have reported as suspicious since Sept. 11, 2001. The Seattle Times obtained a document detailing those incidents.
The agency ranked the incidents according to the perceived threat, with most deemed a low or moderate risk. Many involved reports of passengers who appeared to be Middle Eastern and were simply using a camera or cellphone. Other reports gave such little detail that they were difficult to investigate.
But the FBI determined 19 incidents were highly likely or extremely likely to involve terrorist surveillance of the ferries, with individuals asking probing questions about ferry operations or taking photos of stairwells, car decks and workers going about their jobs.
Three incidents involve one man who is a known subject in an FBI terrorism investigation.
Law-enforcement officials have heard about the ferry system's security shortcomings from other sources as well.
Since that exercise, the ferries have boosted security to meet new federal mandates, but the system likely remains vulnerable, said the class instructor, who presented the group's findings to local law enforcement and ferry officials in a closed meeting last spring, and again to U.S. mayors in Washington, D.C., last week.
If terrorists successfully attack the system, casualties could be high. Ferries with a full load of passengers don't have enough lifeboats or rescue platforms for everyone aboard. And while there are several rescue slides on each car deck, an explosion could disable them or make them unreachable.
One man, three incidents
He is subject of FBI terrorism investigation
Three of the incidents in the threat-assessment analysis of ferries involved the man who is the subject of the FBI investigation.
On Sept. 25, 2003, ferry employees reported they had seen "four Middle Eastern males videotaping the car deck and surroundings" while on board the ferry Cathlamet on its run from Mukilteo to Clinton. One of the men was later identified as "the subject of an FBI terrorism investigation," the report said. The four men were in a rented van with California plates.
The next morning, that man, this time with two companions and driving the same van, drew the suspicions of employees on the ferry Puyallup on its way from Edmonds to Kingston. This time, they videotaped loading and unloading procedures, the report said.
Ferry employees approached the men, who said they were taking the "scenic route back to California on Highway 101." While two men talked, ferry workers told investigators a "third Middle Eastern male was standing nearby and was visibly trembling."
The subject of the terrorist investigation also was spotted just two days after Sept. 11, 2001, videotaping a number of nonferry locations all on the same day. They included the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, flight operations at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and the bridge at Deception Pass State Park, according to the report, which listed that sighting as an incident in the analysis even though no ferry was involved.
"It's hard to say this is all a coincidence," said Patrick Adams, Seattle FBI special agent in charge.
The individual who is not identified by name in the document remains under investigation, Adams said, adding he does not think the man poses "an immediate threat to anyone here in the Seattle area."
Adams declined to elaborate.
On June 24, 2002, ferry employees reported that four clean-cut, well-dressed middle-aged men "presumed to be of Arabic descent" took consecutive round trips on the Edmonds / Kingston run aboard the ferry Spokane. The men took notes as they walked around the ferry and one talked on his cellphone, the report said.
"They were not interested in the scenery, only in ferry operations," the FBI analyst noted.
That incident prompted a fleet advisory instructing crew members to be on the lookout for suspicious activities, according to news reports at the time.
On Nov. 30, 2002, a State Patrol trooper on board the ferry Puyallup on the Edmonds / Kingston run said he noticed two Middle Eastern men, accompanied by a woman with three children, videotaping on the top passenger deck. Both men had cameras and one of them was talking on a cellphone.
"He was holding (the camera) like a football but appeared to be walking and turning carefully as though he was also videotaping," the trooper said of the man on the phone.
The analysis said the group left the ferry in a vehicle registered to a man linked to subjects of two FBI terrorism investigations.
On April 4 this year, a passenger saw four men, described as East Indian or Pakistani, videotaping from an Argosy cruise boat. One was later identified as a member of a group suspected of surveilling Washington ferries. On other occasions, he was seen watching the Coast Guard pier and videotaping in the Seattle bus tunnel, the report said.
On April 22, a passenger on the Seattle / Bremerton ferry run told the Coast Guard that two men were taking video and still photographs of the interior of the ferry, the report said. After about 10 minutes, one of the men spoke on a cellphone "in a foreign language."
"At the conclusion of the call," according to the report, one man turned to the other and said, in broken English, " 'We have to go get pictures of the front of the boat.' "
The passenger alerted ferry employees, but by then the boat had docked and the men were gone.
On May 10, a State Patrol trooper noticed a man at the Mukilteo ferry terminal dropping off two briefcases at a business and then asking a ferry ticket agent about a sightseeing trip to Whidbey Island. The man was "driving [a car] registered to a person ... associated with the subject of an FBI terrorism investigation," the report said.
Causes for concern
Unofficial test of ferry security, deadly ferry bombing in Philippines add to worries
There is a precedent for concerns that ferries are a target for terrorists.
An hour after departure, an explosion ripped through the ship, starting a fire that killed more than 100 people and left the ship foundering. Authorities have arrested a man who admitted to the bombing and is a member of an Islamic separatist faction with ties to al-Qaida.
In June, dozens of law-enforcement, ferry and Coast Guard officials from Puget Sound learned more about the risks to ferries here when they attended a presentation that highlighted how easily ferry security can be compromised.
Marine and Navy officers, as part of a class at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., determined they could attack the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, an unidentified nuclear submarine in San Diego, and Washington ferries, said Raymond Buettner, an associate professor of information sciences at the Naval school.
The officers used only an al-Qaida terrorist-training manual and agreed not to break any laws. Their findings do not represent official opinions of the Navy, the Department of Defense or any other government agency, Buettner said.
Buettner was so startled by the results of the exercise that he contacted law-enforcement agencies in each of the targeted cities to share the information.
In Seattle, he told his audience that the ferries were "the casualty component," the target with a big body count.
Buettner, a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy, concedes that the project was done before the Marine Transportation Security Act took effect in July, mandating new security measures. Plus, security requirements have been increased again beginning this weekend.
He also acknowledged that all but one of his students were white men with crew cuts unlikely to draw attention.
Security is tighter now, said Edmund "Ned" Kiley, chief of security for Washington State Ferries.
Thousands of cars every day are screened by explosives-detection dogs. Walk-on passengers such as the man with the box on the ferry in the Philippines are observed as they board by a ferry employee at the gangplank who has undergone "security-awareness training," he said.
State Patrol troopers have an "increased presence" in terminals, Kiley said.
Plainclothes troopers also are riding some ferries, according to a Patrol document.
But Buettner pointed out, for instance, that security focuses mostly on vehicles, looking for car bombs. Requirements for walk-on passenger security are low just 5 percent of walk-on riders are to be screened, according to a law-enforcement official familiar with the new mandates.
New video cameras and other security systems are being installed in terminals and ferries but are not yet working. Even when they are up and running, the system could be vulnerable, Buettner said.
At Buettner's request, The Seattle Times is not disclosing additional details to avoid providing terrorists a road map.
"We're not suggesting these things not be used," Buettner added. "All we're saying is that you need to be aware that they have multiple uses, and maybe not always the intended one."
Ferry security officials are discussing the findings by the officers in Buettner's class, said Scott Davis, the ferries' safety-systems manager. He declined to elaborate.
Buettner also questioned the effectiveness of camera surveillance in general.
"We have really nice photographs of the terrorists getting onboard the planes on 9 / 11," he said.
Who could be saved?
Rescue system doesn't envision al-Qaida-type attack
Before Sept. 11, the possibility of a terrorist attack on a Washington ferry was considered remote. In a 52-page risk assessment commissioned by the ferry system and published in 1999, the word "terrorism" is never used. The panel that wrote it noted that consequences of sabotage could be severe but found that there was "no evidence of a serious threat of sabotage or attack against the Washington State Ferries."
That panel was commissioned partly in response to news reports revealing that ferries did not carry enough life rafts for everybody on board.
Evacuation slides and large inflatable rescue platforms have mostly replaced the smaller life rafts. In an emergency, passengers could slip down slides to rescue platforms, each of which can carry up to 150 people. Most boats have four slides, located forward and aft on the car deck, on both sides of the ships.
But only four of the systems' 28 ferries have rescue-platform capacity for all of their passengers. The Coast Guard requires the remainder of the ferries to have rescue platforms for just half of their passenger capacity. Ferry routes almost always have two boats operating, and the second ship would provide additional rescue platforms or life boats, according to Coast Guard requirements.
What the system doesn't anticipate is the sort of assault devised by the officers from the Naval school and known to be favored by al-Qaida terrorists coordinated attacks on multiple targets, which could overwhelm rescue efforts.
Ferry authorities are re-evaluating rescue systems, said Davis, the safety-systems manager.
"We are having ongoing conversations with the Coast Guard about it," he said.
For its part, the Coast Guard is "doing preliminary work on dealing with a mass rescue response," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Drier, with the Seattle division's Marine Safety Office. "We are better prepared than we were."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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