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Coast Guard, FBI Power Dispute Could Weaken Response to Attack

By Eric Lipton


Potentially disastrous confusion could arise during a terrorist attack on a cruise ship or ferry because of a power struggle between the FBI and the Coast Guard over who would be in charge, a report released Monday by the Department of Justice inspector general warned.

After the 2001 attacks, both organizations created or expanded armed teams that have the ability to board a moving ship or ferry, using a small boat or helicopter.

“The FBI and the Coast Guard both want the ability to respond to terrorist threats in the maritime area,” the report says. “Unless such differences over roles and authorities are resolved, the response to a maritime incident could be confused and potentially disastrous.”

The two agencies agree that cruise ships, ferries and container ships are likely targets for terrorists using a bomb or a small boat packed with explosives or by taking hostages.

Since 2001, the Coast Guard, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, created 13 specialized teams based at major ports around the nation that travel on small boats equipped with machine guns and are trained to respond to a hostage-taking or other maritime terrorism. These 100-member teams also have access to Coast Guard helicopters and transport planes.

The FBI, a division of the Justice Department, has 14 of what it calls “enhanced maritime SWAT teams,” and a separate hostage rescue team trained to respond to maritime terrorism. The hostage team can rappel from a helicopter onto a ship, or approach a ship using closed circuit diving gear that does not emit bubbles.

The inspector general’s report says that the rivalry between the FBI and Coast Guard teams is so great that during a training exercise last year in Connecticut, which featured a mock terrorist strike on a ferry, “the FBI repeatedly blocked the Coast Guard’s efforts, saying the FBI was the lead federal agency.”

In response, the report says, the Coast Guard “changed the scenario to circumvent the FBI’s lead federal agency role.”

The federal government tried to clarify the roles, through an October 2005 document called the Maritime Operational Threat Response. It says Homeland Security and its agencies, including the Coast Guard, take the lead “for the interdiction of maritime threats in waters where DHS normally operates,” meaning U.S. ports and coastal waters.

The document says the role of the Justice Department and FBI is to search for clues to prevent maritime terrorism and, if there is an attack, to investigate and prosecute the terrorists.

But the new report says the 2005 document has “not eliminated the potential for conflict and confusion in the event of a terrorist incident at a seaport.”

Spokesmen for the Coast Guard and FBI said their agencies are committed to resolving the disagreement.

“There is no room for failure, we will resolve this,” said Richard J. Kolko, an FBI agent.