Maritime Vigilantes

South Florida citizens take homeland defense into their own hands with Operation On Guard

Working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, a small group of local volunteers has expanded a passive public watchdog program into an active intelligence-gathering operation. The idea may send a shudder down the official spine of the ACLU, but this handful of private citizens has turned up a number of interesting leads that may eventually help law enforcement identify broad patterns of terrorist threat -- such as suspicious characters asking too many questions about bridges in Pompano, or trying to rent a plane loaded with extra fuel in the Keys, or inquiring about how to evade security checks at the Fort Lauderdale boat show.

For Larry, Marshall, Tom, Bob, Jimmy, Steve, and the rest, the harsh reality of our country's vulnerability to terrorist attack dawned soon after reading the federal government's plans for homeland security. It wasn't going to work. The government could play musical chairs with departments like INS, Customs, and the Coast Guard (components of the new Department of Homeland Defense) all it wanted, but in the end, it would still have too few bodies to throw into the "War on Terror." "We came to the realization that homeland security is not going to work without about two million more people," recalls Larry Holdridge, a retired aerospace executive who lives in Fort Lauderdale. "Says it right in the beginning of the report."

September 11, 2001, left many people, Holdridge included, feeling a helpless rage. It needed an outlet. So he and other locals joined the Coast Guard auxiliary, a venerable citizen corps of volunteers who help find those lost at sea, conduct marine safety courses, spot pollution hazards and the occasional rickety boatload of hapless immigrants. The idea initially was to help fill in the gaps left by overworked Coast Guard officers suddenly dealing with a big new challenge.

The boys of volunteer homeland security: Armin, Larry, Marshall, and Tom
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
The boys of volunteer homeland security: Armin, Larry, Marshall, and Tom

It didn't take long before the new recruits realized that, even if the Coast Guard did nothing but patrol the state's Atlantic and Gulf coasts for terrorists, it wouldn't be enough. Florida is a security nightmare, with its hundreds of miles of open coastline and a highly transient population composed largely of immigrants and tourists who've been socialized to look the other way. Not to mention well-established water routes for drug and immigrant smuggling that some believe also make for attractive points of terror importation (an argument Attorney General John Ashcroft has twisted rather unconvincingly, allowing the government to indefinitely detain Haitian refugees under the guise of national security). So the auxiliarists figured: "We kind of felt like, we are the protectors," Holdridge says. "Somebody has to do it."

And so they do. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Armin Cate credits Holdridge, an advertising executive named Marshall Golnick, and a couple of others with generating most of the significant leads so far. "The success stories we've had have come from maybe a dozen auxiliarists who are most heavily into it," he offers. "And the majority is two or three guys pounding the pavement." They get the goods through the plainest of gumshoe methods, by just striking up conversations with people who spend a lot of time on the waterfront. "We decided to go where the information is -- boat yards, yacht brokers, dive shops, bridge tenders," Holdridge explains. "We just ask, 'What's cooking? Anything suspicious?'"

Broadly speaking, that's the intent of a Coast Guard program Cate launched in August 2002 called Operation On Guard. Large yellow signs are posted at marinas and boat yards all over the state asking people to call a national hotline (877-24-WATCH or 800-424-8802) if they see something suspicious. The hotline passes the tips on to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Auxiliary members also spread the word about the program as they go about their normal waterfront routines. Cate hopes the local success of this program will convince Coast Guard brass to expand it nationwide. "We've really stretched the boundaries of the auxiliary," he acknowledges. "There's been a debate within the auxiliary about whether they want this mission," as the quality of data was questionable, "but it's needed. We just don't have the people."

But Holdridge, Golnick, and the others -- largely financially successful, middle-age white guys with some military background -- have taken spreading the word to a whole new level. The appeal for them is part patriotism and part Boy Scout adventure. Cate says Golnick in particular treats the mission as if it were a full-time job. Golnick says he just wants to do his part to ensure his two teenage sons get to grow up in a safer country. "I hear [Cate] gave me up as the poster child," he remarks dryly. It was Golnick who started talking to area bridge tenders.

At a bridge in Pompano, for example, he ran across a female tender who confessed to him that this past December, three strange men posing as students and wearing yellow Department of Transportation vests spent an entire week studying her bridge. They learned how the bridge operates, made detailed drawings, and then went away. The tender never reported it, Golnick discovered, because she works for a private company that discourages its employees from talking to law enforcement. "He asked her, what if a team in an inflatable boat covered in grenades, holding up automatic rifles, comes by your bridge?" Holdridge remembers. "Answer: 'It's none of my business.' But now we have the bridge tenders' numbers and they have [Golnick]'s. He gets calls all the time now." Cate says that law enforcement follows up on credible tips, but if the information is too old, there's no way to tell whether guys like the bridge aficionados were terrorists, or just strange. He notes most calls turn out to be simple misunderstandings. But it doesn't hurt to be alert, he argues.

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