FBI scrutinizing local scuba shops

By Katherine Schiffner
The Herald of Everett, WA Herald Writer

EVERETT, WA 6/12/02-- FBI agents have contacted several scuba shops in the Snohomish County area as part of a nationwide effort to pre-empt any underwater terrorist attack against the United States.

Underwater warning

A warning of possible attacks by divers was issued by the U.S. government before Memorial Day.

The Coast Guard also warned of the possibility last weekend, and security around ports and ships has been tightened as a result. Initially, the warning was inadvertently characterized by the Coast Guard on Saturday as only applying to Puget Sound.



Agents are asking about people who enrolled in diving classes but withdrew before their names could be added to the list of certified divers. The FBI says it wants to know about anyone who asks unusual questions or shows a sudden interest in an underwater apparatus called a rebreather, which permits diving without telltale bubbles, or other high-tech gear used by Navy frogmen.

"We're looking for people who are diving where they shouldn't be diving, or making unusual purchases," said John Sylvester, counterterrorism squad supervisor in the FBI's San Diego office. "We've been checking with all scuba-certified instructors."

Agents visited Underwater Sports in Everett about three weeks ago and asked for names of certified divers, inquired about anyone asking strange questions and told employees to report suspicious activity to the FBI, assistant manager Aaron Moser said.

The added scrutiny hasn't hurt business, he said, and most customers didn't mind the store turning over a list of names to the FBI.

"The divers I've talked to have been more than willing to have their names provided to the FBI for national security," said Moser, a diver and assistant scuba instructor.

The three largest organizations that certify divers in the United States have turned over millions of names of students who passed scuba courses in the last three years. The agency is checking those names against its files for potential terrorists.

Ben Giard, an Underwater Sports employee and diver, said he's glad the FBI is checking on the potential threat.

"I think it's an excellent idea, personally, because it makes everything a lot safer," he said. "I think anybody with certification should be willing to have their name out there with the FBI, because what have they got to hide?"

However, all this scrutiny of dive schools -- similar to what flight schools have faced since Sept. 11 -- is making some dive instructors and shop owners uncomfortable.

Chris Jacobson, owner of Northwest Sports Divers in Bothell, said when FBI agents visited his store, he worried at first that he was under investigation.

"It freaked me out," he said.

Jacobson, who was asked by the FBI to provide a list of his customers for the last five years, said he supports the move, but said some of his customers were unhappy.

"Ninety-five percent of them were OK with it, but the other 5 percent felt like their privacy was semiviolated," he said. "But they know it's for the safety of our country."

Jacobson said because his company provides training for Navy divers, he's also had several visits from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service. He said none of his customers have asked about or purchased items he worried were going to be used in a terrorist attack.

But he said it's possible a diver could cause damage. "I think it should be a concern. Not a major concern, but a concern," Jacobson said.

Moser of Underwater Sports said it probably would be difficult to pull off an underwater attack.

"It would be virtually impossible for an open-circuit scuba diver to get anywhere near the Navy," he said, adding that two of his dive partners accidentally were in the vicinity of a Navy ship several years ago. The two were quickly discovered and arrested. They were later released, but the Navy "was pretty harsh about it," Moser said.

Even some FBI agents consider it far-fetched to think that terrorists could mount a significant attack from underwater.

Compared with what is possible on land, it is far more difficult to make or buy a device that will explode underwater. Transporting explosives underwater is even more difficult, given that a diver -- or a team of divers -- can haul only a small amount for a short distance.

Still, a year ago, it would have sounded far-fetched to think a group would fly planes into buildings, turning passenger airlines into bombs, the FBI's Sylvester said.

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