The November attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) offered US officials an alarming illustration of how a band of well-organized terrorists can use a little creativity to stage an effective attack by sea. Its lessons were not lost on US officials in charge of securing American waters and ports.
They are pushing ahead with regulations that could change boating culture to give port officials better information about who is out there and with other projects designed to make ports safer.
Just as the attacks on 9/11 forced significant changes to the nation's aviation security system, the Mumbai incident indicates it's now time to apply that kind of security at sea level, says Adm. Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard.
"It's just to take that system and make it wet," he says.
Admiral Allen is overseeing the implementation of two controversial plans that he says will strengthen maritime security. The first is the creation of a new transportation worker identification card program through the Transportation Security Administration. The program will seek to register and identify about 1.2 million people whose work brings them into contact with ports, including those within the merchant marine community, longshoremen, and dockworkers.
The other plan is an automated identification system (AIS) that will require transponders on boats 65 feet and longer. Originally developed as a collision deterrence system, the system will use VHF radio waves to give US authorities a better picture of who is coming and going from some of the country's 360 ports.
The AIS could be fully up and running within a year. The idea is not unique to the US. Singapore, for example, uses a similar system and requires vessels as small as jet skis to have transponders.
But as Allen surveys the vulnerabilities across some 95,000 miles of US shoreline, he says a much broader security effort is needed, one that is aimed at building a system that incrementally removes security risk while balancing the needs of a boating and vessel culture that he says operates largely free of regulation.
"I don't think there is a generally-held consensus about what constitutes an adequate maritime security regime in a postwar, post-9/11 environment," he says.
Allen sees a need for a national debate about what degree of maritime security the US actually needs. He does not rule out creating a boat-driving licensing program that would mirror the kind of regulation implemented for automobiles almost 100 years ago.
He met this past weekend in San Francisco with members of the Passenger Vessel Association, a trade group of about 600 passenger boat operators and owners. Members told Allen they feared the "cumulative effect" of this kind of regulation – costs are approximately $7,000 per transponder and $135 per identification card – could have on their bottom lines. They also expressed concern that the programs also represent new levels of regulation on what is not only an industry, but a way of American life.
"We can't quantify what the impact that this technology will have on port security, but what we know is it will have a cost impact on a passenger vessel industry which is highly regulated," says John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Association.
Mr. Groundwater pointed to voluntary security measures the industry has undertaken, but industry officials aren't keen on talking about them publicly. New identification cards do not necessarily improve security in an industry where employers typically recognize all of their employees.
"When you lay on all the other costs of regulation, it becomes onerous," he says.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, has been developing a strategy to target small vessels for some time. Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, speaking to reporters just after the Mumbai attacks, said such a strategy will help reduce the chances of small boat attacks, but that the US coastline will never be completely protected.
"Minimize does not mean eliminate," he said.
The department's maritime security strategy, released prior to the Mumbai attacks, paints a grim picture of US port vulnerabilities. Officials believe a Mumbai-style attack is plausible.
"The exploitation of a small vessel to provide a standoff attack platform provides numerous benefits for terrorists," says the report. "The use of a small vessel as a standoff weapon platform provides greater operational security, improved access to targets, and a ready means of escape."
Creating a viable maritime security strategy may be difficult politically. But if protecting the country on 9/11 was a "failure of imagination," then a revision of the security approach to the nation's coastline is necessary, says Allen. But the road ahead is far from straightforward.
"The problem is so broad and immense and complex that it's kind of hard to reduce it to a couple of simple equations and say 'this is where we need to go,'" he says.