October 12, 2005

US wants to push ocean boundaries to limit terror threat

By Stefano Ambrogi

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The United States wants to search
foreign ships far outside its territorial waters to stop a
possible terrorist attack on the country coming from the sea, a
U.S. coastguard leader said on Wednesday.

"If the threat is significant enough we will board that
ship as far from our coast as we can," said Vice Admiral Harvey
Johnson who is Pacific Area commander of the U.S. coastguard.

Johnson, who oversees key trade routes with Asia, told a
maritime security conference in Copenhagen the policy of the
United States was to "push back" its sea borders for searches
as much as possible -- perhaps by as much as 2,000 nautical

In August Washington said it planned to put sensors on oil
rigs and weather buoys to spot security threats at sea and said
it might use satellites to track suspect vessels.

Johnson said that, from an intelligence perspective, there
was ample justification to worry about a terrorist threat.

"And I believe the maritime sphere will be the avenue for
that threat," he said.

He said if the threat level from an incoming
foreign-flagged ship was deemed to be low the United States
might choose to board and search it closer to home, perhaps
within its own territorial waters at 12 miles.

But he said he would like to be able to carry out forced
searches much further from shore.

Governments require permission from the flag-state to board
a ship in international waters, where it is seen as sovereign
territory, or risk a diplomatic row.

Nations would have to agree a new legal framework to allow
countries to inspect or board ships outside their own
territorial waters.

"I don't intend any saber-rattling here. I'm talking from
an operations perspective," he told Reuters.

"I'm not trying to bring any undue international pressure
to get permission to board without flag-state approval. What I
do want though is enough time to interdict the vessel," he

"Even if I did decide to board a vessel at sea, even as a
three star admiral I couldn't make that decision, it goes back
to Washington and it doesn't all happen in 15 seconds."

Johnson said the exact parameters would be worked out with
partners at a global level and within the framework of
international laws of the sea.