With some 17 million privately owned boats and 10,000 commercial and cruise ships plying U.S. waters each year-and 2 billion metric tons of trade goods passing through U.S. ports-building a taut security net is a daunting project. Recognizing the challenge, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has introduced a bill that would provide $250 million to develop nuclear screening devices for ports and toll booths, and $150 million more to buy mobile X-ray scanners for the Customs Service. Meanwhile, the House has passed legislation, which at press time was pending in the Senate, to allocate an extra $75 million a year to the overextended Coast Guard for security. (The emergency funding the agency received after September 11 quickly ran out, and many reservists were sent home.) The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has requested a 36 percent budget increase, to $7.3 billion, for the 2003 fiscal year.
The Coast Guard's protection strategy is twofold. The first step is to tighten security on U.S. coastal waters by creating an integrated network of low- and high-tech counterterror operations. Such a network would of necessity employ antiquated equipment like Ashmore's utility boat but also innovations such as top-end sonar systems and specially trained armed teams to act as ship escorts and emergency responders. Step number two in the Coast Guard's plan is even more ambitious: The goal is to detect and defuse threats before they ever reach our shores. Through better mapping, surveillance, and global maritime intelligence, officials hope to make the oceans more "transparent"-effectively pushing back our borders to many miles offshore. "If a container has some nasty stuff in it, once it gets to this port it's already too late," says Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Port of Oakland. "You want to go back to the source."
San Francisco Bay is home to one of the nation's busiest shipping-container ports, and one of the major Coast Guard stations there is on Yerba Buena, a pine- and lupine-covered island that divides the cantilevered and suspension sections of the Bay Bridge. At the top of the island, within a prefab structure beneath a field of microwave and radar antennas, resides command central, and at its heart is the Vessel Traffic Service. The equivalent of an airport control tower, the system consists of more than two dozen computer and video terminals that are manned 24/7 and that daily track some 350 to 400 vessel transits, both on the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the past, officers read information about boats entering the harbor off the system's radar screens and then simply wrote the ships' vital statistics on index cards. Today, operators use digital chart overlays of processed radar video imagery to track vessels, then color-code them by type and size. On a recent visit, I read some of the ships' names off the screens: American River, General Villa, Eagle, Raccoon, Trig Lund. If any one of them attracts an operator's interest he or she can call it up in the database, which describes the size, tonnage, ownership, and other vital aspects of every vessel that's come into the bay since the mid-1990s.
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