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Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen talks about what keeps him awake at night

In Tampa on Friday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen talks about the tradeoff between security and culture since Sept. 11 in the United States and the threats to major ports.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

In Tampa on Friday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen talks about the tradeoff between security and culture since Sept. 11 in the United States and the threats to major ports.

For most people, the Coast Guard's main job involves plucking unlucky or careless boaters out of the stormy seas. But Adm. Thad Allen, the service's top officer, tells civilians the Coast Guard has lots of roles that take "Coasties" from the Mississippi River to the Horn of Africa.

The commandant was in Tampa on Friday to address a conference of harbor safety committees, industry and government officials that work on security and safety issues at major ports. He talked with the St. Petersburg Times about how the service adapted to fight terrorists and what worries him most.

How has the Coast Guard's job changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

Our mission set didn't change terribly since 9/11. Going back to World War I, we were put in charge of safety and security for anchorages and waterfront facilities after a sabotage event in New York harbor. Some of our mission emphasis has changed.

Like what?

After 9/11, we required (foreign-flagged ships to provide) 96-hour notification and the electronic information they provide regarding the manifest of the crew and passengers. That goes to the National Targeting Center, and they produce anomalies that may cause us to want to hold a ship offshore because of a passenger or some cargo we may have a question about.

What kind of threat keeps you awake at night?

Small boats that are under the threshold for international regulation (300 gross tons or about 70 to 80 feet long). If you look at some of the things that have occurred around the world — things like the Mumbai attacks (in India), attack on the (Navy destroyer) Cole, piracy off the Horn of Africa or these self-propelled semisubmersibles bringing cocaine from South America — there's a common denominator: unregulated small boats.

What attacks are the biggest concern?

In the 2007 conference, we looked at four scenarios: the use of a small boat as a platform for a shoulder-held (missile) around, say, an airport; (using a boat) to introduce a weapon of mass effect into the country; a waterborne improvised explosive device; (and) the Mumbai scenario where a small terrorist team would be put ashore by a small vessel.

What is the best way to protect against them?

Here's where it starts to get dicey. Following 9/11, there was an international agreement that every vessel 300 gross tons or more would have a transponder on it, called automatic identification systems.

With recreation boaters and commercial fishing vessels, it becomes a very emotional issue. (They) have a history of autonomy and independent action on the water. There would be very strong resistance to put locator devices on recreational boats. That said, there are countries that require it. If you go to Singapore, they require tracking devices clear down to the Jet Ski level.

So, it really is a tradeoff between security and culture, freedom of movement, autonomy of action — a lot of things this country has been built on. It's a discussion that needs to be had. Sooner or later there's going to have to be a solution that emerges in this country, and we would not like to have to solve this problem after an event.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen talks about what keeps him awake at night 05/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 9:04pm]
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