BREMERTON — The U.S. Coast Guard is enforcing 300-yard security zones around Trident nuclear submarines traveling through Northwest inland waters in response to a "real, credible and immediate threat," government documents say.
The heightened security, detailed in a new Coast Guard rule, was imposed under an emergency provision that allows the government to bypass normal rule-making procedures to preserve national security.
Security zones also have been expanded along the waterfront at Naval Submarine Base Bangor, about eight miles north of Bremerton on Hood Canal, where the subs are based.
"The Navy is concerned about possible terrorist acts," said Lt. Paul M. Stocklin Jr., chief of the waterways branch at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Seattle, which oversees the zones. "That potential threat still exists."
According to a notice published July 9 in the Federal Register, potential threats were detected after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors.
"The attack … precipitated U.S. Navy security reviews, which have determined that immediate threats exist to naval bases and submarines in Puget Sound," the Federal Register notice said.
It’s not clear how the threats were detected or what they are.
The notice said it would be "contrary to the public interest to disclose the exact nature of the current threats … as this information is highly classified, and if divulged would greatly damage U.S. intelligence sources and security postures."
But it said the threat "is real, credible and immediate."
"Immediate action is necessary to safeguard U.S. naval bases and submarines from sabotage, other subversive acts, or accidents and otherwise protect naval assets vital to national security."
Security was not increased for surface Navy vessels based in Everett and other Puget Sound home ports, though Stocklin said that’s under discussion.
"I know the Navy is concerned about security for all of its assets," he said. "I don’t know if the threat was specifically against ballistic missile submarines."
In interviews with The Bremerton Sun on Wednesday, Navy officials denied there had been any specific threat. In Seattle, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Kim Marks said the measures were among those taken to "safeguard against terrorist actions" after the attack on the Cole.
Navy officials could not explain the apparent contradiction between her statement and the one in the Federal Register.
"We appreciate the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard, who have been providing increased security since this past June for naval forces operating in the Puget Sound region," Marks said.
Each of the eight Trident subs based at Bangor carries 24 long-range ballistic missiles capable of launching as many as 192 thermonuclear warheads. Each sub is powered by a nuclear reactor, and the base has bunkers full of nuclear warheads in storage or undergoing maintenance and repair.
Under a recently implemented consolidation plan, the base’s Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific is the only place on the West Coast where nuclear weapons are stored.
The Federal Register announcement said no public meeting was planned to explain the new precautions. It set a deadline of Sept. 7 for interested parties to comment or request a public meeting.
Seattle lawyer Dave Mann said he’ll request such a meeting. He sued the Navy in federal court this summer on behalf of a coalition of activist groups over planned installation of new, more powerful missiles on Bangor-based subs. The first are expected in October 2002.
Mann has also filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking additional information from the Navy about any potential threat.
"What’s the basis of this emergency?" he asked. "I’d sure like to find out what’s going on. … This troubles me on all levels."
Mann said his Federal Register search turned up no notices for similar enhanced precautions for any other vessels or any other U.S. bases.
"I live in Seattle," he told the Associated Press on Thursday. "It’s a little bit scary to know the Coast Guard and the Navy consider there to be an imminent threat."
Under the new security measures, no person or vessel is allowed within 300 yards of any Navy submarine traveling through Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There were no previous restrictions.
In addition, no person or vessel is allowed within a security zone extending about 500 yards from the waterfront at the Bangor base. The new base security zone extends about 200 yards farther than the old one.
"We’re trying to help the Navy protect their forces, and we’re trying to accomplish that objective with the least amount of impact for the public," Stocklin said.
The rules are likely to become permanent, he said.
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