Scanning the slate-gray waters of San Francisco Bay on an overcast spring day I spot more eider ducks and gulls than barges or ships. We're patrolling past Alcatraz in a 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat that's almost as old as its blue-eyed 30-year-old coxswain, Chuck Ashmore. Ironically, this old workhorse, with its aging marine radio and soon-to-be-installed Vietnam-era .60-caliber machine gun, is on the cutting edge of a revolution in homeland-or, I should say, home water-security.
Long the threadbare cousin of the Navy and Marines, the Coast Guard has transformed its mission since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Then, just 2 percent of Coast Guard resources were directed at security; the agency was primarily focused on enforcing fishing quotas, catching drug smugglers and marine polluters, and rescuing distressed boaters. But in the immediate wake of the attacks, 2,900 reservists were called up to augment the agency's 35,000 active officers, and security work commandeered 58 percent of the agency's resources.
September 11 put airport security high on the public agenda, but military strategists acknowledge that a much more disturbing vulnerability may be our 95,000-mile coastline, where 14 of the nation's 20 largest cities and more than half the U.S. population are located. Whatever their tool of choice-chemical or biological weapons, high-grade explosives, or radiological "dirty bombs"-terrorists could smuggle it in through one of the nation's more than 360 ports.
Another sort of contraband could be the terrorists themselves: In May, reports surfaced that as many as 25 Middle Eastern extremists had likely infiltrated U.S. borders by stowing away aboard container ships that had recently docked in California, Florida, and Georgia. Other disturbing possibilities: The ports themselves could become terrorist targets: A boat could be used to ram or bomb shoreside nuclear power plants, military ammo dumps, or petrochemical complexes in highly populated areas such as coastal Texas or the lower Mississippi. Then there's the potential for eco-terrorism-say, disgorging the contents of an oil tanker into a harbor.
Until recently, such scenarios had been only dimly imagined. "If you think the aviation community is bad, the maritime community has never thought about security other than antipiracy," says Ian Gilchrist, a 10-year veteran of the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, who is now a consultant with Hill and Associates, a security services firm in Stamford, Connecticut.