A New Surveillance System

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2003-09-09 Print this article Print


Better equipment is needed if the Coast Guard is to have any chance of locating a motivated Al Qaeda operative quietly paddling the water of San Francisco Bay, much less communicate the operatives presence to Boyle or Customs officials.

Boyle had a plan to augment the Coast Guard radar system with a system of high-powered surveillance cameras positioned all around San Francisco Bay and its adjacent waterways to look at channel access to the Sacramento River and the three major Bay Area ports. Such a camera network may have helped the Coast Guard locate and identify the raft. He estimated the cost of such a system at $6 million and thought the government and other ports in the area could all pay for it. No dice.

Instead, the commanders and crews of Coast Guard patrol boats count on gut instinct. "The guys and gals out on the water patrolling rely—very much like the local cop on the beat—[on their] senses to get a feel for whats normal and whats out of place," says Phillips.

Even though Boyles camera network hasnt been financed, deploying high-tech information and intelligence systems is part of the Coast Guards formal port security strategy. The program calls for the Coast Guard to gather information about the waterways, conduct surveillance of ships by air and sea; and constantly track vessels, cargo and persons around the nations harbors to identify vulnerabilities—and threats on the move toward them.

Get the details on how the speed of vessels of all sizes can represent a security risk.


"It goes to the heart of knowing whats going on. Which people, which ships, which cargo, is coming in your direction," says Rear Admiral Paul Pluta, recently retired assistant commandant for Marine Safety and Environmental Protection.

Creating a network of shared data is at the heart of the plan. As called for in the Coast Guard Maritime Security strategy, which was published in December 2002, "databases used for law-enforcement, immigration, intelligence, defense and public-health surveillance will be connected through an enterprise architecture, and interagency intelligence fusion centers will improve information sharing."

The identification system could be a valuable tool. With access to vessel registration and licenses, the Coast Guard would know instantly if a boat was allowed in a restricted area, such as the waters around the Coast Guard station on Yerba Buena Island, the shore around the San Francisco and Oakland airports, or the docks of the Port of Oakland.

Computer Sciences Corp. delivered a version of the identification system to the Coast Guard in 1998. But, according to the General Accounting Office, the system had trouble sorting out duplicate documents and tracking boats that were relocated from state to state.

The Coast Guard eventually took over the project, but in 2000 the system was shelved, according to the GAO. The Coast Guard isnt totally exposed. It has an intelligence center located at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in Maryland.

Next page: Making sense of homeland security rhetoric and the blurry division of responsibilities.


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