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Confed999
05 Mar 04,, 04:19
U.S. Probe Spots 9 Terror Suspects in Merchant Marine
By Caroline Drees

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A 14-month investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and FBI has uncovered nine merchant mariners with possible terrorist links, raising renewed concerns that U.S. ships and ports are vulnerable to attack.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet said on Thursday that "Operation Drydock," prompted by national security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had also led to the arrest of about a dozen others whose active arrest warrants for crimes from minor misdemeanors to attempted murder had long gone unnoticed.

The Coast Guard said it investigated the records of more than 200,000 people who hold U.S. merchant mariner credentials.

It also revoked or suspended the licenses of roughly 200 other commercial seamen for a range of offenses, Shifflet said. None of those arrested, dismissed or suspended had been linked to terrorism.

Shifflet would not disclose what had happened to the nine mariners suspected of possible terror links, only saying, "We've taken steps to mitigate the potential risks posed by these individuals."

She would not give the nationality of the nine, but said merchant mariners were required to be U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens.

Shipping experts have long said the U.S. maritime industry is vulnerable to attack. They say porous borders, global logistics chains, limited funds and the trade-off between security and commerce make fail-safe protection impossible.

Almost 7 million containers and about 50 percent of all imports arrive in the 361 U.S. ports each year.

Analysts say the vulnerability of military vessels was laid bare by the attack on the warship USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

The investigation, which came after years of internal government infighting, Coast Guard exclusion from intelligence circles and cost-cutting, also involved the Justice and Defense departments and the U.S. intelligence community, and shows security officials are taking the threat to U.S. maritime interests seriously.

"The Coast Guard before 9/11 was not a full member of the intelligence community. We didn't even have a seat at the table, and now we do," Shifflet said.

Some politicians and analysts say the Coast Guard, which is charged with patrolling 95,000 miles of coastline, remains overstretched and underfunded. Cost-cutting before the Sept. 11 attacks had trimmed staff to its lowest levels since the 1960s, but officials say funding has increased substantially since then.

Concerned about possible national security threats from fraudulent merchant mariner documents, the Coast Guard said it had strengthened its background checking process for commercial seamen and began issuing more tamper-resistant credentials in February 2003.

Original Story (http://channels.aimtoday.com/news/story.jsp?floc=NW_1-T&oldflok=FF-RTO-rontz&idq=/ff/story/0002%2F20040304%2F1359152910.htm&sc=rontz&photoid=20040301RM101)