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Thursday, October 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FBI reports no immediate threat of terrorist attack on state ferries

Seattle Times staff reporter

While the FBI has found evidence of surveillance of Washington state ferries as possible targets for a terrorist attack, there is no immediate threat to the ferries, said two congressmen from the state who were briefed yesterday on the FBI report.

And as long as the threat level remains the same, there are no plans for random searches of vehicles boarding state ferries, said U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island.

Inslee and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, who were briefed on the FBI report yesterday, said more federal money needs to be assigned to the state to pay for explosives-detecting dogs that now patrol ferry terminals.

Because the State Patrol doesn't have enough dogs for the ferry searches, it has had to borrow from other jurisdictions, Inslee said.

"A dog on its worst day is better than visual inspection on a good day," he said, adding that the Patrol needs at least $400,000 to pay for added dogs.

Inslee wouldn't say how many dogs are needed because such numbers are confidential.

Inslee, who frequently rides the Bainbridge Island ferry, said he had no fears about doing so, but that the FBI report does cause a legitimate reason for increased security.

A confidential FBI assessment of the threat to state ferries found that groups of men, including one tied to a federal terrorism investigation, have videotaped ferry operations.

The Washington State Ferries system, the largest in the nation, last weekend began implementing new security requirements that call for screening by dogs of 15 percent of cars and 25 percent of trucks, vans and other larger vehicles boarding ferries.

The FBI gathered information on 157 incidents on or near ferries between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and last May. It reported finding 19 incidents that were highly likely to have involved terrorist surveillance of the ferries.

Inslee said the dogs are so good at detecting explosives that one dragged a handler through four lanes of ferry traffic when it detected a gun in a car.

"We need to beef up the dogs. We need more federal resources," Inslee said. "We need to be prepared for an additional threat level."

Added Larsen: "The ferries are not just a tourist attraction. They're a critical part of the highway infrastructure. The feds need to step up more."

He said 225 new border agents have been added to the Canadian border in his district, and that the U.S. government needs to make the same kind of investment for the ferries.

The possibility of randomly searching cars on ferries has come under attack by some civil libertarians, who say it would violate the state constitution. Both Inslee and Larsen said there are no plans for random searches unless the threat level increases, but that dogs are preferable because they don't intrude on civil liberties.

"If this bumps into the Washington state Constitution, I think the constitution prevails," Larsen said.

While the dogs are checking cars, there is little surveillance of walk-on passengers, although Inslee said there is an effort under way to give a more sophisticated evaluation of the threats such passengers might pose.

He said the Coast Guard is evaluating specific types of explosives that passengers might carry on a ferry, and then will see whether the dogs should be used to search passengers.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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