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.
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.
Another example: In December 2002, a group of auxiliarists was at the Marathon Airport in the Keys, planning a routine patrol flight over the Bahamas. "While they were there, some Middle Eastern guys tried to rent a T33 jet trainer with 600-gallon tip tanks," Holdridge relates. "That's a literal bomb." But nobody reported it until one of the auxiliarists, who couldn't shake an uneasy feeling, called Holdridge. Holdridge reported the information to the feds. "The FBI picked up on that -- they were like 'Holy Mackerel!' -- and sent somebody down to Marathon Airport to talk to the guy who runs it. I figured later, it takes 17 minutes to fly to Turkey Point [nuclear power plant], and 22 minutes to downtown Miami." Again, because the trail was cold, there's no way to know if these guys were just innocent Arabs who wanted to fly, or al Qaeda.
Holdridge says that people see strange things happening all the time, but most don't want to bother authorities, or it just doesn't occur to them. But if an auxiliary man comes by to chat, they are likely to report it. Most incidents are of the drug or immigrant smuggling type, where a small boat is spotted pulling into a beach or dock, and a dozen people run off into the darkness. But sometimes it's something really creepy, like the time this past November when an auxiliary member was chatting with a Brazilian yacht broker near Port Everglades. The woman told him that a friend of hers, a ship's captain, had recently thrown a party on board a yacht. One of the invitees was a brooding day laborer who had done some odd jobs for the captain that day.
As the party progressed, the man began asking questions about how one could bypass security at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. He asked about getting a particular item past security, a big round stainless steel thing he claimed was a new kind of coffeepot. "Where should I put this so I have maximum exposure to the most people?" he asked, according to Holdridge. "He claimed to be named 'Neil,' from Chicago. He was in his thirties and had a Middle Eastern accent. It was obvious he didn't know what he was talking about. So as a joke, in Portuguese, they began calling him 'the terrorist.'" Eventually the man was asked to leave the party. Then he called the yacht broker a week later and tried unsuccessfully to rent a yacht. The woman said she called the FBI to report the incident, but they didn't take her tale seriously. Holdridge does. "The four phases of a terrorist attack are target identification, initial survey, final analysis, and then the hit team comes in," he explains. "So we figure that guy's doing a classic phase two recon." Cate: "With this, all we could do was make note of it and see if there are similar incidents occurring elsewhere." So far, nothing has happened.
That's another part of Operation On Guard -- collecting all the weird little incidents that may not mean much individually, but could point to a larger pattern of lethal behavior. "We are collecting information on potential crimes that haven't been committed," Holdridge says. "Most law enforcement isn't trained to do that. We want to have a database where eventually you start to see patterns."
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Deep inside the claustrophobic warren of offices at the Coast Guard's station at Causeway Island on Miami Beach, Armin Cate is the ideological soul mate of the citizen watchdogs. A burly Coast Guard officer with a long career as a U.S. Customs investigator, he looks like the kind of guy you'd want guarding our borders. His build is a cross between Fifties-era football coach and Marine -- thick arms, mustache, craggy face, deep-set brown eyes, and a military-style blunt haircut with just a touch of gel to spike up the front. A map mounted behind the desk in his small office shows the various sea channels that wrap around Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. In bright pink marker, Cate has scribbled the words "Coastline Threats," as well as a series of lines through various routes favored by traffickers to South Florida ports and those in Bimini and Freeport. He says with tighter security in Florida, traffickers of all sorts often stage their shipments from the islands in hard-to-track go-fast boats.
Thus Operation On Guard seemed a good idea. The notion of bringing the citizenry into the antiterror area hit home for him about three months after the New York and Washington terrorist attacks. In December 2001, he relates, a 46-foot boat from Cartagena, Colombia sailed right up the Miami River. Although the crew had no radio communications with the bridges and didn't report to the Coast Guard as required, every bridge tender on the river up to about 22nd Avenue opened up for the boat. No questions asked. The Coast Guard didn't hear about the incident until the next day. "What if they had had weapons of mass destruction?" Cate wonders. "The Miami River is the heart of our city."
Of course eternal vigilance has its drawbacks. One is the potential for overzealous citizens to make mistakes -- or opportunists to seek revenge on their enemies. One example happened recently in Key Biscayne. A personal watercraft concessionaire called the On Guard hotline to report four Pakistani customers who he claimed had made worrying statements concerning the Port of Miami. Local antiterrorism task force members scrambled, locating the men a few hours later at their hotel. The four turned out to be legit -- medical students from England who'd argued with the concessionaire about extra charges on one of the watercraft.
In an appropriately karmic twist, when the feds checked the concessionaire, they found out he was a Frenchman who had overstayed his visa. He was deported. "You're going to risk prank calls," Cate allows, adding that the Coast Guard doesn't encourage well-meaning people to go too far in playing private detective: Don't follow people in your car. "People watch TV and think they are Magnum P.I. The key is to get the tag number and let law enforcement follow it up."