Tension between the Coast Guard and the FBI could lead to confused and potentially disastrous responses to terrorism incidents at sea, a government investigator said Monday.
Disagreements over the roles the two agencies should take in responding to a maritime terrorism threat or attack come as intelligence analysts continue to believe that al Qaeda and other terror groups are likely to launch attacks on ports, warships, cruise ships or ferries, said Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.
The bickering came to a head in last year's weeklong anti-terrorism drill, TOPOFF 3, in which the Coast Guard said the FBI repeatedly blocked Coast Guard plans to try out a new team in a mock assault on a ferry off the coast of Connecticut, Fine said in a partially blacked-out, 103-page report.
The FBI wanted to limit the assault to its elite Hostage Rescue Team. The Coast Guard ultimately changed the scenario to circumvent the FBI's role as the lead agency, Fine said.
A plan released in October that was intended to address the problem does not sufficiently clarify the agencies' roles, Fine said.
"In our judgment, unless such differences over roles and authorities are resolved, the response to a maritime incident could be confused and potentially disastrous," Fine said.
FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko, a spokesman in Washington, said the bureau is working with the Coast Guard and other agencies to improve the response to terrorism issues at U.S. ports. A Coast Guard spokesman did not immediately comment on the report.
The inspector general's report looked at the FBI's efforts to protect the nation's 361 seaports. It noted that SWAT teams closest to 14 of the busiest ports have received special training for maritime threats and incidents.
The bureau also created a maritime security program in its counterterrorism division in July, Fine said.
However, Fine said, the FBI has not assessed the terrorism scenarios that are most likely to occur in ports or at sea, or the time required to respond to them.
Several FBI field offices that have ports in their territory have not designated agents to coordinate port security with other agencies and share information with port operators, the report said.
The FBI office in Jackson, Miss., has no port liaison officer, even though it covers ports in Greenville, Pascagoula, and Vicksburg that the Homeland Security Department has deemed eligible for security grants. The Pascagoula port ranks 17th in the nation in terms of tonnage shipped, the report said.