Coast Guard to "protect" ports from scuba divers

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Posted by on February 02, 2005 at 03:00:14:

LOS ANGELES - The Coast Guard is seeking to protect the nation's ports from terrorist attacks by scuba divers with a sonar system so powerful it can distinguish swimmers from dolphins, officials said Tuesday.

The security device, set to be unveiled Wednesday, scans port waters and alerts authorities on land to any possible divers. A response boat then drops a second sonar below the surface for confirmation and sends back high-resolution images of the diver.

"Instead of alerting us to every sea lion, manatee or fish, this system will help us identify objects as a diver who just got lost or someone who intends on doing us harm," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Alan Tubbs. "To date the Coast Guard's law enforcement has been mostly above water. This is just another capability."

Tubbs declined to discuss in detail how the system actually differentiates humans from animals, how far away it can detect divers or how many were being used. Cost estimates for the system, developed by Coast Guard researchers over the last 2 1/2 years with outside technology, were also unavailable, he said.

The device would only be deployed periodically and could prove especially useful to inspect waters during major public events like welcome ceremonies for military ships returning to port.

Coast Guard crews have been operating the system along the West Coast over the past year as well as training with it along the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast.

So far, the device has been nearly flawless during testing, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jachob Smith.

"Our unit divers were out trying to trick the system, but we haven't been able to yet," Smith said.

Concerns about terrorist strikes by scuba divers were raised three years ago after the FBI announced it was investigating whether al-Qaida operatives took scuba training to help blow up ships at anchor, power plants, bridges, depots or other waterfront targets.

The Coast Guard has no information about any current underwater threats, Tubbs said.

Randolph Hall, co-director for the Center for Homeland Security at the University of Southern California, noted that sonars have long been used aboard submarines but he was unaware of any with sufficient resolution to tell divers and other objects apart.

He added that scuba divers could target ships with higher accuracy than a small explosive-laden boat like the one used in the USS Cole blast that killed 17 sailors in 2000.

"Small craft loaded with explosives ... are probably a bigger threat because it's easier to deploy a larger amount of explosives. But an underwater diver could put explosives at a more critical part of the ship," Hall said.

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