WASHINGTON - As boating season approaches, the Bush administration wants to enlist the country's 80 million recreational boaters to help reduce the chances that a small boat could deliver a nuclear or radiological bomb somewhere along the country's 95,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways.
According to an April 23 intelligence assessment, "The use of a small boat as a weapon is likely to remain Al Qaeda's weapon of choice in the maritime environment, given its ease in arming and deploying, low cost, and record of success."
While the United States has so far been spared this type of strike in its own waters, terrorists have used small boats to attack in other countries.
The millions of dinghies, fishing boats, and smaller cargo ships that ply America's waterways are not nationally regulated as they buzz around ports, oil tankers, power plants, and other potential terrorist targets.
This could allow terrorists in small boats to carry out an attack similar to the USS Cole bombing, according to Admiral Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant.
That 2000 attack killed 17 American sailors in Yemen when terrorists rammed a dinghy packed with explosives into the destroyer.
"There is no intelligence right now that there's a credible risk" of this type of attack, Allen says. "But the vulnerability is there."
To reduce the potential for such an attack in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security has developed a strategy intended to increase security by enhancing safety standards. The Coast Guard is part of the department.
Officials today were to announce a plan calling on states to develop and enforce safety standards for recreational boaters and asking boaters to look for and report suspicious behavior on the water - much like a neighborhood watch program.
The government also will look to develop technology that will help detect dangerous materials and other potential warning signs.
The United States has spent billions of dollars constructing elaborate defenses against the monster cargo ships that could be used by terrorists, including strict regulations for containers and shipping.
"When that oil tanker is coming from the Middle East, we know everything about it before it gets here," said John Fetterman, deputy chief of Maine's marine patrol. But when it comes to small boats, he said, "nobody knows a lot about them."
Initially the government considered creating a federal license for recreational boat operators, but that informal proposal was immediately shot down by boating organizations.
Coast Guard and homeland security officials have toured the country in the past year to sound out the boating industry and its enthusiasts. While the government insists there will be no federal license, the strategy suggests that the government consider registering and regulating recreational boats.
There are about 18 million small boats in the country, contributing to a $39.5 billion industry, according to a 2006 estimate from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The government has taken tentative first steps to secure the waterways, but at a much slower pace than the effort aimed at large container ships.
Small boats are not the top terrorist threat facing the United States, officials say. But the nation shouldn't wait to be attacked, said Vayl Oxford, the head of homeland security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
"We just cannot allow ourselves to get to the point where we're managing consequences," he said.