Major Security on a Minor Ferry

Is a ferry that transports 3000 cars a day (during the busy season) a national security risk?

Thousands of motorists who use the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry can expect more stringent screenings this week, when the state adds armed guards and thorough car searches.

More info here

New, increased security measures are coming to the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. Beginning July 1, security guards at the ferry will conduct random screening of passengers and their vehicles in an effort to prevent dangerous substances and devices from boarding the ferry. Commuters should prepare for a possible increase in the amount of time it takes to board the ferry once the screenings are in place; however, the ferries will depart on time according to schedule.

In accordance with the Maritime Transportation Security Act, VDOT will post security guards at the base of the bridge on each side of the James River to screen those traveling the ferry. Screening activities will vary and can include checking picture IDs of the driver and passengers, and inspection of the vehicle, including under the hood, trunk and undercarriage. Guards may also check the cargo areas of cars, trucks, campers and trailers.

The frequency and depth of screening at the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry will change with the Maritime Security level, which is set by the United States Coast Guard. In order to board the ferry, drivers and passengers must consent to the screening process.

How many ferries like this are in the U.S.? How many other potential targets of the same magnitude are there in the U.S.? How much would it cost to secure them all?

This just isn’t the way to go about it.

Posted on September 20, 2005 at 6:46 AM40 Comments


Shachar Shemesh September 20, 2005 7:44 AM

One would have to ask, if that is not the way to close all of the security risks, what is?

You say: Invest in intelligence and emergency response. While I will willingly grant you that these are crucial places, they are never bullet proof. As usual, the example is Israel.

Intelligence wise, the Israeli defense forces have a de-facto foiling percentage of over 98%. Some months it’s a little higher, some months it’s a little lower, but the bottom line is that over 98% of the terrorist attacks that are planned against civilian targets inside Israel are either caught or elimintated before being carried out. Guess what? 1% is still quite a lot (and months in which it’s 2% instead of 1% mean a 100% increase in the amount of bombs that go off).

As far as emergency response goes – I’m afraid that here practice really does make perfect. Our emergency response teams are so practice and efficient that Israel typically offers help to natural catastrophes that happen abroad (including the latest one in New Orleans).

The simple truth is that those two are simply not enough. In the case of Israel one could claim that eliminating the root cause that drives the terrorists is possible, say, by signing peace treaties. Arguable, but definitely possible.

The problem is that the palestinian problem is not really the cause of Islamic terrorism outside of Israel. It’s just an excuse. As such, solving the fundemental drive that allegedly causes terrorists to threaten the safety of the US (do they? Was there any attempt at causing terrorist attacks during the past year?) is not as easy. It’s a cultural thing, not a specific conflict.

Thus we are left with trying to do what we can in the remaining gaps. Don’t get me wrong. I may totally agree that scanning bags for people entering malls, scanning cars entering parking lots etc is a silly thing to do…. in the US. The reason, however, is not what you claim it is.

The reason these counter-measures are silly is only because they are intrusive in a way that is disproportional to the threat. In Israel, bags ARE scanned at the enterance to every mall, and cars ARE scanned entering underground parking lots. In Israel, however, the threat is clearly visible. Security personnel, usually privately employed, did prevent suicide bombers from entering resturants. They did so more than once or twice, and they often paid for it with their own lifes. When the threat is real, the counter measure is understandable.

In the US, on the other hand, people (myself included) fail to see the threat. If, during the four years that past since terrorism became a priority for the US, the amount of suicide bombers attempting to attack malls was zero, any time I’m showing the content of my bag for inspection when entering such a place is a needless violation of my right for privacy.

It’s a matter of ballancing the threat with the costs (and I do mean social costs here) of the countermeasure. As an outsider, the ballance seems off in the US.


Ron September 20, 2005 7:49 AM

My guess would be that the national security risk would be the nuclear power plant less than five miles down river and not the ferry itself.

Bruce Schneier September 20, 2005 7:51 AM

“One would have to ask, if that is not the way to close all of the security risks, what is?”

Two points.

One, this can’t possibly be the way to close all of the security risks. As a nation, we don’t have the money to pay for this level of security on all possible targets.

Two, implied in your question is the premise that this is a security risk worth closing. That’s what I’m questioning.

Tiberius September 20, 2005 8:07 AM

Schachar: Although you never present a source for your 98% Israeli foilage figure, I’ll accept it for sake of argument, because I’ll bet it’s a lot higher than the US figure. So, you and Bruce seem to be talking past each other. You’re right that other measures beyond the ones Bruce routinely advocates are needed to close the gap on that remaining 2%; however, the US still has to get to the point where its foilage gap is a mere 2%. And the best way to do that is to emulate Israel.

Jon Solworth September 20, 2005 8:41 AM

Shachar’s comments are right on! Security is about tradeoffs, not absolutes. When a “solution” to terrorism comes at the expense of some previously assumed right, we have given up something of substantial value. The US Constitution is a very carefully crafted documented whose purpose is to prevent tyranny. And it is surprising that those who are worried about terrorism don’t worry about tyranny as they share a central thread of coercion.

Perhaps the greatest problem right now is the lack of transparency. What is really happening? Secrecy has advantages, but it also has costs as it deprives us from making rational decisions and setting realistic tradeofffs. Closed government does not increase security, this too is a tradeoff.

Rhandir September 20, 2005 9:19 AM

Armed guards? Seems excessive. But why would this be about terrorism?

Searches? Well, honestly, if I was the ferry’s captain, I’d want carte blanche to verify any suspicions I had about what people were carrying onto my boat. Not to prevent terrorism, but to prevent dangerous boneheadedness. (Leaky gas tanks, oxy-acetylne setups being transported on their sides, meth lab in the van, etc.) That’s not too different from the powers most captains are given over their ships, yes?

If I was a passenger, I’d much rather have someone “official” like a cop there to make sure that the ferry staff didn’t abuse their power, and to deter drunken thuggery on the late night run from the downtown bars.

I mean, really, given the stupidity and thuggery we see on the internet constantly, it shouldn’t be surprising that people do things that are dangerous or mean in public places. When those public places float, a litte extra caution is warranted.

That said, I’m be offended at the same level of scrutiny in pedestrian-based transport like buses, subways and planes, mainly because it’s so easy to hide dangerous stupidity in your coat than in your car. The tradeoff is pretty simple: its possible to verify that people aren’t carrying dangerous, bulky things onto boats in their cars. It’s not possible to verify if every pedestrian is a bad actor, so trying to do so is an irrational invasion of privacy.


theophylact September 20, 2005 9:33 AM

I used that ferry in November last year, and the security procedures were in place — in principle. I didn’t actually see any inspection going on, but there sure were inspectors. It didn’t seem to me like a sensible use of resources, unless you’re convinced that Muslim terrorists really want to stop Americans from buying country ham in Surrey, VA.

Unixronin September 20, 2005 9:46 AM

The problem with the “Secure every possible target” strategy is twofold.

First, you have to have perfect prescience, the ability to anticipate every possible attack, and the manpower to adequately protect every possible target.

Secondly, even then, for it to be successful, you have to have a perfect record of never failing to stop an attack; but the terrorist only has to get lucky once.

What’s more, sometimes these very security measures create targets in themselves. For instance, in the course of preventing unscreened passengers from getting onto an airplane with a bomb, we’ve created dense unscreened crowds of thousands of people all jammed together in airport terminals, the perfect place for a terrorist to set off a bomb or an improvised Claymore — or worse still, to release a biological agent. What are you going to do — screen people before you let them into the screening line, creating a second crowd of people waiting to be screened for the line to be screened?

If a terrorist went to an airport, got in the screening line, slowly released a biological agent — say, an aerosolized Ebola or Marburg — then simply stepped out of the line before reaching the security station and left the terminal, we’d never know until people all across the country started getting sick. And by then, it’d probably be too late to stop it before thousands or tens of thousands of people were infected.

Zwack September 20, 2005 10:07 AM


You appear to be claiming that America is not doing enough to fight terrorism…

Remember that all good security involves a cost/risk analysis. Given that there is only a finite amount of money to spend, how should it be spent so that the money is used effectively?

My personal opinion is that the amounts of money being spent on sensational countermeasures for sensational attacks is disproportionately large. If the same money was spent on emergency services, they would be better able to respond to multiple different events. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, twisters, chemical spills, forest fires, multiple vehicle accidents… even terrorist attacks. Sure some of these are sensationalist, and some of them are all too common, but if you had a set amount of money to spend and spending it in one way would resolve one of these issues completely, while spending it in a different manner would mitigate all of these, which would you consider to be the most productive use?

If you personally were threatened with only one of these and you could remove it completely (destory all forests, remove forest fires) then you might pick that one. But for the greater good you I would hope you would choose to mitigate a wider variety of threats.

If all of the inspectors standing around checking if people have nail clippers were trained as fire fighter, EMTs and rescue workers would you feel more or less safe as another tropical storm approaches the US?

On a side note, a friend of mine had a knife confiscated from her checked baggage on a flight recently. It was a sheath knife and it was in her checked baggage, not her carry-on. Can anyone explain how this was a threat to people on the plane?


Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 10:32 AM

I know someone who refused to wear a seatbelt after a friend of hers survived a major crash because he was not wearing one.

Our beliefs about what makes us more secure are often just that, beliefs. Imagine how secure authorities in Salem must have felt during their witch-hunts.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with much of the statistical analysis written above (some excellent posts today!) I am starting to wonder about the slide from purely faith-based policies into something akin to national witch-hunts.

A simple survey of ferry sites shows that most, if not all, are being prompted by the US government to initiate anti-terror screenings.

It is not based on a risk analysis, or a simple survey/vote by the public, or even as a result of broad-based awareness programs and popular response. This not only means that the pressure to instate the screenings must be all from above, rather than popular demand, and therefore it can only be disruptive to the passengers.

But even more concerning are the debates about “suspicionless searches of ferry passengers and their property”. Not content with the ability to instate pre-boarding screening without just cause, it seems that some authorities moved on to an even more questionable practice:

richj September 20, 2005 10:58 AM

I know that the NYC authorities have considered the ferry that I take to work a target as it passes a Naval base (Earle Naval Weapons Station) enroute from NJ to NYC. Right after 9/11 you had to go through mandatory police screening daily, with several times a week a bomb dog checking every passenger. But, as you would have guessed, there hasn’t been any inspections for several years now.

Probitas September 20, 2005 11:07 AM

Given the comment above regarding a nuclear power plant nearby, I will grant the highly unlikely possibility that terrorsist could highjack a ferry and successfully to use it to ram the reactor. Securing the pilothouse in much the same fashion as a cockpit on an airliner should provide a cheaper alternative means of prevention of that style of attack.

Barring that, we are then left with the idea that we are trying to, as Unixronin put it, “secure every target”. The problem with that is, even after you fully secure every major target, there are still all the minor ones. Kansas is full of grain elevators which would blow up real good, as would most gas stations. Certainly spectacularly enough to get coverage on the news for a while. Then we could panic and scramble to secure those, too. Meanwhile, a semi-truck traveling at a high rate of speed with no explosives on board would do a pretty decent job of taking out the average strip mall. Should we screen every truck driving school in America to make sure that all students meet the right criteria?

This is why they call it terrorism, because the hysteria engendered in trying to protect every target exhausts the people and leaves them terrorized. Given those facts, I find it vary hard to argue with Bruce’s approach of intelligence to root out the possible attacks and prepare for the ones you will inevitably miss.

Garrett September 20, 2005 11:27 AM

Here in San Francisco, the local ferry companies are also piloting security checkpoints with bomb sniffers. While on the surface it makes for a good show, I don’t understand what the overall target would be. Why would a terrorist choose a ferry service? For the same amount of timing, couldn’t they plan something much more dramatic than a ferry filled with bored commuters? Also, the impact of a ferry would not be long term such as a subway or train. Its easy to re-route around a boat or dock.

By the way, this screening is already adding 12-16 seconds boarding time per traveller. It seems the ferry just got more inconvient to use, pushing people back into their cars and increasing traffic and destroying the envirnoment. (To me, this is one more case of how Al Qaeda only needed to provide a catalyst for us to destroy ourselves — that is the goal of terrorism.)

J.P. September 20, 2005 11:52 AM

Travelling on the Washington State Ferries this summer, I noticed we were being escorted across Puget Sound by Coast Guard gunboats (motorized dinghies with mounted machine guns). Since everyone was allowed to simply walk on, unchecked (which I think was correct), I wondered just which movie plot threat we were being “protected” against… (USS Cole repeat — in Puget Sound???)

wilky September 20, 2005 12:16 PM

Here in the Puget Sounds there are more security measures on the ferries, given it is one of the largest ferry systems in the US. Normally there are state troopers on the ferries, explosive sniffing dogs, and randomly, passengers are searched. Given this was the main mode of transportation for Rassom to enter the US, the security is reasonable. Security is regulated trade-offs, some better than others we need to get used to them and help to ensure the appropriate trade-offs occur. We may not agree or even care for some of them, but the majority of society may be comfortable with them. Think of this in a holistic manner instead of a narrow perspective.

Johnny Zoom September 20, 2005 12:20 PM

In July 2005, after the first London Subway attacks (and NY and DC were Code Orange), whale-watching tourist trips out of Bar Harbor Maine required the following:

  1. Adult passengers had to display a photo ID.
  2. Random searches.
  3. A walk through, before the trip, by a heavily armed Coast Guard member.

Comments: #1 was silly — unlike Airline checks, the whale-watching tickets did not have any passenger info on them so there was no way to match ticket to photo to person. The random searches appeared to be conducted by summer staff, typical of a tourist spot.

I suspect the whole routine was meant — at best — to raise passenger awareness in the hope that we might spot suspicious activity.

I do not doubt that this boat, if hijacked, could be used to damage a port or naval ships docked therein, but it’s unclear how theses measures provided any meaningful security.

another_bruce September 20, 2005 12:23 PM

a patronage/spoils system has entered the security realm. all those i.t. programmers whose jobs got outsourced to india have to be put to work somewhere. in the future, we may all be employed searching each other.

Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 12:27 PM

Ooops, I wrote my above post in a hurry so my apologies for the atrocious grammar…

I was just trying to suggest/agree that

1) We must be vigilant about requiring open and honest discussions about risk prior to legislating security measures and allocating resources that could be better used elsewhere. Some ferry’s may in fact have a high asset value, be very vulnerable to disaster, and under constant threat. But a proper risk calculation is more likely to suggest better power-plant inspection measures, trained pilots, fewer passengers on the top deck, fewer windows belowdecks, etc., than screening passengers for tools and knives.

2) If you let poor security decisions stand, the precedent often leads to much worse encroachments (greater control with an accompanying loss of freedom, and no justification or explanation for either).

Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 12:31 PM

@ Johnny Zoom

Good example.

So if someone ties a bomb to a trained dolphin and blows up a ferry will the US Administration recommend that all marine life be forced to wear and ID and pass through security screening?

Shachar Shemesh September 20, 2005 12:50 PM

Two comments to comments.
Tiberius – unless something happened that I never heard about, U.S. foilage percentage is 100%, and has been for a couple of years now. When was the last time ANY terrorist attack took place on U.S. soil.

Of course, you can only apply any meaningful value to the unit digit of a foilage percentage if the number of attempts is sufficiently high. Guess what – we don’t have the numbers.

As for Bruce’s comment – please note that I agree with you on the conclusion, but not on the reasoning. I don’t know how good America’s intelligence is, but after Katerina there seems little doubt that the emergency response could use a HUGE improvement.

Then again, I think the most important part of my post talked about who pays for the screening you get entering resturants. It’s not the government, it’s the resturant. Security screening became something that you do in order to attract customers, or they won’t come to eat at your place.

I think that’s the best way to tell whether a security measure is too obtrusive.


I don’t have on hand the exact number (98%, 97%, 99%). It is taken from official number cited in the media. Of course, I cannot verify those either.

Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 1:34 PM

“unless something happened that I never heard about, U.S. foilage percentage is 100%, and has been for a couple of years now. When was the last time ANY terrorist attack took place on U.S. soil.”

The US is taking a huge number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Granted, this is not within the boundaries of the US nation-state, but it certainly qualifies as terrorist attacks against US citizens.

As far as actual terrorist attacks on US soil, here is a good source of activity:

There have been some notable terrorist events related to anti-abortion, animal rights, environmentalists, croatian independence, puerto rican independence, etc.

Moreover, if you break out vulnerabilities from threats, many experts continue to say that the US borders are full of vulnerabilities, but the threat of the kind of attack we are discussing with regard to ferrys is simply not as great as others suggest and certainly nowhere near the risk Israel faces with its neighbors.

And for what it’s worth, Europe seems to be releasing info on a number of foiled plots:

That could mean that Europe is foiling plots intended to eventually reach the US, a luxury Israel does not have given its proximity to the base of operations for attackers.

Tim Vail September 20, 2005 1:55 PM


I like what you say. I think Bruce is being a brief in his comments here, though. If you have read his books (particularly Beyond Fear), he has talked about balancing agenda of the decision maker with actual overall security of everyone.

The thing here is that it doesn’t seem like the cost to secure all those individual 3000 car ferries is worth the overall added security we obtain. I’d like to add that, yes, Israel has 98-99% foilage success rate. Now, you’d like to close that 1-2%, the problem is it is really not possible to have 100% success rate all the time. The goal is to, for the 1-2% that get through, how do we minimize the impact to people? You also need to factor in how much “damage” to society in cost those security policies causes to society. Right now, it is certainly true that an catastrophe caused major havoc (ex. Katrina), so we aren’t really getting our money’s worth of security right now in US.

Alen September 20, 2005 2:06 PM

It strikes me that this is a very successful policy. From a security perspective, it’s ludicrous, obviously. However, from the perspective of wanting to transfer money from x, to the firm providing the guards, it’s a 100% success. As is usually the case in America, it’s about money. If this were about protecting people, they should offer a free service to check the tires etc on the cars boarding.

The response to terrorism world wide is idiotic, it’s massively disproportionate to the threat. Spend the money on emergency services, you’re far more likely to be hit by a drunk driver than any kind of terrorist.

Remember though, policy isn’t set by people with an agenda of protecting people, policy is set by an agenda of getting more money.

Ari Heikkinen September 20, 2005 6:11 PM

I’m sure whoever ordered it don’t care about other ferries, he probably only cares for this one because it just happens to be on his “backyard”. If that person’s elected now he’s doing something visible to increase security of the locals.

JP September 20, 2005 7:05 PM


“Normally there are state troopers on the ferries, explosive sniffing dogs, and randomly, passengers are searched. Given this was the main mode of transportation for Rassom to enter the US, the security is reasonable.”

Sounds like the ferries have been known to be a mode of transportation for terrorist(s) — not the targets. How do gunboat escorts prevent terrorists from being passengers? It’s expensive, silly, and unnecessary (though nicely flamboyant — a demonstration of “see? we’re doing something!”).

Davi Ottenheimer September 20, 2005 7:25 PM

“How do gunboat escorts prevent terrorists from being passengers?”

Someone or something on the ferry may have needed armed escort. The fact that they were escorting you was perhaps an indication that a particularly high value asset was on board and the ferry was too vulnerable on its own…or they might have just been training.

Nick September 20, 2005 8:15 PM

A ferryboat might make a good target for (as someone pointed out) a biological attack – a concentration of people that then disperse, creating multiple vectors that could slow response.

However, it is highly unlikely that a single vehicle or passenger would carry sufficient explosive materials to be of any danger except to the passengers and crew. It does not seem probable that a ferryboat could, say, be exploded and significantly damage a bridge or even a nuclear plant on the shore of the same body of water.

The movie plot of a coordinated terrorist team taking over the ferry and relying on the presence of hostages to deter police/military response whilst the terrorists then use the ferry as a mobile staging point is just silly.

Randy Bush September 20, 2005 10:15 PM

How much would it cost to secure them all?

probably about what the administration would like to cut out of real social programs. isn’t that (part of) the intent of all this fear mongering?

Rich September 21, 2005 3:07 PM

I seem to have missed the discussion of the cost of all this. I wonder how passengers would feel if their ticket prices reflected the extra expense.

A frequent joke in Canada is that the BC Ferries fleet has more tonnage than the Canadian Navy. I don’t know if it’s strictly true, but it’s not far off.

Mouse September 22, 2005 2:36 PM

Bruce said:

Two, implied in your question is the premise that this is a security risk worth closing. That’s what I’m questioning.

I’d rephrase this as “this is a security risk worth closing Now/first.”

If we succeed in securing all planes or all skyscrapers or all nuclear power plants, and resultingly McDonalds’ become perfectly good targets, then they by definition, become security risks worth closing, no?

Our major problem is assessing the cost/risk of securing anything is that we haven’t had an attack here since September/October 2001.

Either that means we are successfully securing risks right now, or it means that the risk isn’t all that high. Since we can’t determine accurately the probability of small events, it’s nearly impossible to determine the difference in a billion-dollar risk with a 1 in a 10 billion chance of happening versus a 10 million dollar risk with a 1 in a million chance of happening.
Transparency would help us know if there’s a real reason –i.e. current threat– to secure a ferry or a building or a cruise ship or anything else.

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Bambi March 26, 2008 9:56 AM

Having lived with these screenings at the Jamestown-Scotland ferries since they started them, I have a few things to say about it.

First, I totally agree with Bruce on this.

I truly believe this country has done exactly what the president at the time of 9-11 said NOT TO DO. We can not change our life style and allow fear to dominate our lives as is now required by these type of tactics. If you make everything a matter of national security, there will be NO FREEDOM in this country.

Since I ride the ferry a MINIMUM of twice a day for work related matters, here’s a typical ‘tertiary’ what I like to call ‘pseudo’ random search/screening at the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry:

You pull up and cringe as the officers (they are officers btw) move down the dock toward your vehicle wondering if you will be hit again, or as you drive onto the ferry where they watch you regardless of whether you get hit with the ‘inspection.’

Yep, it’s your turn again. So, so you have to stop, (or not if you are already stopped in line) shut off the vehicle, if they push for an ‘I submit’ to the inspection, you have to do that (or you are turned back and can’t get on the ferry. Why automatically shutting down your vehicle and popping your truck/engine compartment isn’t considered enough of a signal that you are submitting is beyond me especially if you are a local — very obvious by the VA plates and County/Town stickers on the windshield), then open both the trunk and engine compartment and get out of the vehicle to open them, they take a peak, run their mirror on a stick around your vehicle, look in your windows, then you wait for the go ahead and shut the hood and trunk lids and when they say so, restart the car and get on the ferry.

This happened to me TWICE in one day yesterday, and it’s not the first time that it has happened to me coming and going on the ferry. And I don’t have a commercial vehicle or anything that represents a danger in/on my vehicle. Never have, never would. I live here for Pete’s sake, I need this ride! Why would I p*ss in my own pool, so to speak.

One might ask, if you hate it so much, why not take another way around? A bridge or something.

Good question, glad you asked. First of all, gasoline is VERY expensive these day and I am on the road a lot as it is without adding two extra hours of driving/gasoline to my day just to cross the River. Yep, you read that right, its an hour each way added to the trip to go down to the two closest bridges that cross the James River.

So, guess what, unless we change where where do business, which is highly unlikely since I am a small business owner and many of my clients are in the Williamsburg area, I guess I take the ferry and ‘submit’ my rights in this country every time I have to ‘submit’ to a search.

They are having the same issues at every ferry up and down the east coast and from my reading also on the west coast like in the sound areas around Seattle, etc.

This country is turning into a bunch of insanely fearful people ready to apparently enthusiastically give up their Constitutional rights and liberties as citizens for some perceived temporary safety. Maybe our historical forefathers were right…maybe we don’t deserve either rights or liberties after all.

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