The truth about Coast Guard patrols is that with our current tactics we cannot fully know what occurs in the maritime environment, because the mere act of going on overt patrols—in orange boats that can be seen from miles away and are stored in public view—changes the very environment we are trying to monitor. While there is undoubtedly value to having a visible law-enforcement presence on the water for deterrence and response, this is only half of the equation—and we are missing the other half by unintentionally shining a light on ourselves every time we get under way. In contrast, our shore-based law enforcement brethren have both overt patrol cars as well as clandestine vehicles for surveillance because they understand that both are needed for different reasons. The Coast Guard should mirror such tactics in the maritime environment. There is a great untapped potential waiting to be unlocked: The Coast Guard needs a clandestine boat capability.
Yes, We Can
Before delving deeper down this rabbit hole, the first question is if such a concept is even legal. The short answer is yes. Coast Guard operators in U.S. waters already possess the legal authorities to conduct clandestine surveillance under Title 14 USC 89, although they are often restricted by policy.1 Working with Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) assistance, the only segment of the service that possesses undercover authority under Title 14 USC 95, Coast Guard personnel could conduct undercover or covert (a term used outside U.S. borders) surveillance and operations.2 This raises an important distinction that is often misunderstood. In a clandestine operation the action, not the person conducting the action, is hidden.3 For example, if an individual conducted clandestine surveillance from a park bench or an underway boat, they would probably be in plain clothes, attempting to hide their actions. However, if questioned, they would be required to state their true identity. Undercover operations, on the other hand, are activities in which the identity of the person conducting the operation is hidden.4 Therefore, CGIS agents or those working under their authority could hide that they are from CGIS.
In addition to the authority of traditional Coast Guard operators to conduct clandestine surveillance and CGIS to conduct undercover surveillance, the service also has Title 50 authority for intelligence collection and counterintelligence operations against non-U.S. persons; Title 10 Military Authority; and Title 19 Shipping authority, to name a few. While there may be stovepipes and policy restrictions within the Coast Guard that often prevent these authorities from being utilized to their utmost or joined together for maximum effect, the legal authorities that the Coast Guard possesses today are actually quite expansive and cover both clandestine and undercover operations.
It should be noted that this potential capability is not an intrusion on American citizens’ civil liberties. It simply brings the Coast Guard up to speed with basic law-enforcement techniques already being used across the country on land, and it is well within current Coast Guard legal authorities. These recommended operations would also be conducted against targets in open view where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, ensuring they are wholly lawful. Finally, as the premier provider of maritime law enforcement in the world, with a congressionally mandated responsibility to ensure homeland security in the maritime domain, it is the Coast Guard’s responsibility to protect U.S. waters without intruding on American citizens’ civil liberties.
Moving on Up
Is there actually a need for such a capability, though? It is impossible to identify a metric to measure the demand for a clandestine boat capability because people cannot ask for something that does not exist. However, there are several operational anecdotes and intelligence-collection gaps across the Coast Guard that imply such a demand does exist today, and that it may be just the tip of the iceberg. Look at the counter-drug problem off California for example. We know that drugs are often driven from Mexico by pangas to the beaches of California, but they are also driven right into ports and offloaded at the pier. Anyone who has watched an episode of “Border Wars” on the National Geographic Channel knows that drug-trafficking organizations use spotters against law enforcement as a standard practice.5 Would we really expect to catch them in the act with a shiny orange Coast Guard boat that departs from a known location, even at night? Particularly when the organizations all most likely know where our stations are located?
A clandestine boat capability for surveillance and other similar operations could become invaluable against counter-intelligence targets on the water and illegal fisheries. It could also be highly useful for general maritime-domain awareness, joint operations, targeted intelligence collection, CGIS investigations, or clandestine security patrols during special security events at the national level. The Coast Guard preaches operational security for good reason, but our publicly known stations in the heart of the community and readily identifiable assets often tie our hands. Real operational security for a targeted mission would be a boat with no visible Coast Guard markings that fits into the local area, manned by personnel in civilian clothes, and launched from a random location. Nefarious actors hide from overt Coast Guard patrols; only with a clandestine capability do we have a shot of actually looking and seeing.
A common saying in the intel community is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence: Just because we do not routinely see illicit activity in our ports and waterways does not mean it does not happen. Our enemies know how we operate and adapt their actions accordingly. It would be naïve to think otherwise. The only way to see behind the curtain of blindness is to try new techniques and intelligence-collection methods that they do not expect: A clandestine boat capability is one such method and directly in the Coast Guard’s maritime lane. While this could be a critical enabler for remarkable operational success down the road, such a capability by itself is not a panacea that will solve all problems or discover all illicit activity and threats in a port. Intelligence collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination, as well as effective operations and planning are critical to this end and always will be. However, this capability could help solve the current gap in our approach, potentially resulting in remarkable benefits down the road.
In his recently released strategic priorities, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, articulated the value of intel for his vision.6 When budgets decrease and threats increase it is more important than ever that we know what our adversaries are doing so we can put the right assets on target at the right time and place to get results. Overt collection and information sharing with other agencies, while invaluable, will not get us there by itself. Further, in response to the Director of National Intelligence noting that Coast Guard Intelligence routinely punches above its weight, Rear Admiral Christopher J. Tomney, Assistant Commandant for Intelligence and Criminal Investigations, has made moving into a higher weight class a priority.7 A clandestine boat capability that directly supports field intel and operations is one of the best ways to get there. It is often said that the true value of intelligence is obtaining secrets by secret means, because only when our adversaries do not know we are collecting against them is that information truly valuable. Overt patrols and collection are invaluable for the purposes that they serve but are far cries from acquiring secrets by secret means.
Ideally there would be at least two units, one on each coast and under that area’s control. Each unit would best be co-located with other boat crew personnel, which would help alleviate recurring boat-crew training challenges, provide better operational security for personnel when not deployed, and allow for adequate oversight. They would respond to deployment requests from the field, without too cumbersome of an administrative process for field units to request this capability in a timely manner. Ideally, such a unit would also be integrated with another command, making starting it up relatively easy as no congressional approval would be needed. It would also need to be linked with both Intelligence and Response.
The crew should include several senior boatswain’s mates, machinery technicians, maritime enforcement, and intelligence specialists, with the potential for a few CGIS personnel. This could be scalable, starting off with one boat and one deployable section of approximately four to five personnel, with a few non-deployable support staff, one billet at the area for management, and one billet at headquarters for policy. This minimum baseline capability would provide value added for planned operations, but would not allow for short-notice deployments. If a B-6 (six-hour deployable) capability was desired, which would be best, the ideal staffing would be closer to 20 personnel per coast, allowing for an A/B/C/T training and deployment cycle. This program would probably best be managed either by CG-2 (Intelligence and Criminal Investigations) or CG-721 (Office of Specialized Capabilities), or in some combination. If each area had such a capability, the total personnel would range between 15–40 personnel, depending on if a B-6 capability was desired. It would be best to start off with a limited number of vessels for crew training and logistics; while multiple boats and crews would be ideal, this capability would still be beneficial and easily scalable, even if at a low capacity.
A clandestine boat would work exactly the same way as Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF) and would essentially just be an additional tool for the sector commander, Coast Guard Investigative Service, Coast Guard Counterintelligence Service, or others to request as needed. Policy and training would of course have to be created, but it would not require a significant effort since the service has the legal authorities required and there are already different policies that could be altered or pulled from to unify such a capability. Further, the training for surveillance, intel collection, law enforcement, engineering, and boat driving already exists. If CGIS were brought into the fold, they would have access to training courses, policies, and only need additional policy clarification on the use of civilian clothes, when to carry weapons, and driving a non-standard boat, for example.
The boats themselves ideally would need to be able to fit on a C-130, but as this program grows the potential exists for boats of multiple sizes that could be pre-staged in certain geographic areas, eliminating the need for transport. In order to reduce cost, seized vessels could be another avenue for boat acquisition. These would ideally be outfitted with clandestine weapons storage, communications (signals intelligence) collection capabilities, and other surveillance equipment such as maritime forward looking infrared, night vision, and high-quality photography/video equipment. The members would also need credentials to verify who they are if stopped by law enforcement. These are all policy, funding, and billet matters—not an authority issue.
It is recommended that this capability is created with the maritime-security response teams (MSRTs) on each coast. These units already own multiple specialized capabilities, such as advanced interdiction, fast-rope, hook and climb, divers, precision marksmen, CBRN, etc.; have crews that clandestine boat teams could integrate with; and have processes and subject matter expertise to deploy these teams in and out of different areas of responsibility (AOR). Further, the MSRTs already work directly for each area, providing the ideal chain of command; are experts in operational security; and have both response and intel personnel—albeit limited intel. When not deployed, the clandestine boat crew could provide a CGIS agent to work with the MSRT for evidence collection training, and investigative techniques, which would be a critical benefit to the mission.
The second option is to create an additional capability at select maritime safety and security teams (MSST) in tier 1 ports or along the border. Similar to the MSRT, MSSTs also work for the areas, and have some specialized capabilities, boat crew personnel, logistics, and oversight. Further, as the maritime law-enforcement and force-protection teams are transitioned to the MSRTs this would allow the MSSTs the time needed to nurture this capability. However, the MSSTs currently have no intel capabilities or personnel. At this program’s inception it may not be ideal to have this capability geographically spread beyond more than two locations.
Another choice is to place clandestine boat crews under maritime intelligence support teams (MIST), which are currently a division under the Maritime Intelligence Fusion Centers (MIFC) on each coast. This would create a direct link to the intel community within the Coast Guard at a unit that understands how to work between national and law enforcement intel. These MISTs already work for the areas through MIFC, and with direct links up and down the intel chain of command from the field to headquarters. However, they are not operational units with other boat-crew members, operational logistic capabilities, or subject matter experts on deploying with a team in and of out of different operational areas.
Alternatively, the capability could be found within CGIS, whose authorities and training would be extremely beneficial. However, CGIS may be less responsive to the field, has no boat crew personnel or logistics for this new capability to build on, and may not be the best choice to supervise an additional 5–20 personnel on top of the administrative burden to oversee deployments. CGIS would, however, probably be less risk-averse to using this capability than traditional Coast Guard operational units as they already have a working understanding of the issues associated with undercover and clandestine operations.
Another option is to place the crews at prioritized sectors, for example at tier 1 ports or along the border, creating a capability more responsive to field inputs and requests in the areas that need them most. This path would be a significant oversight, policy, and training burden since the units are geographically separated. Under this option, the boats used, since they would be used in the same area, may eventually be spotted and recognized by the locals. If a smaller capability proves successful, this would probably be a great option in several years but is not ideal when such a capability is first starting up and would need substantial oversight.
Finally, the Coast Guard could create policy and training to allow select personnel to deploy with other government agencies who may already have a clandestine boat capability inside the United States, but who are not serving Coast Guard interests. Obviously, the Coast Guard would need to determine if such waterside mission and capability exist among these agencies and their willingness to share. Memorandum of agreements would need to be created and joint training would need to be conducted. This is the cheapest option, but would be a significant policy and liaison burden and would be considerably less responsive to Coast Guard time sensitive needs, making it essentially ineffective.
Given the current budget constraints and the reality of bureaucratic inertia, it may be difficult to get this program up and running. However, the benefit that such a capability could provide for the relatively low cost to the overall Coast Guard budget is trivial in comparison. Further, there is potential funding from the Director of National Intelligence, and/or DHS/DOD for new ideas, concepts, and innovations through the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency, or the Homeland Security Advanced Research Project Agency, and even budget add-ons from Congress. One should never doubt the ability of Congress to fund projects they find intriguing.
As policies and capabilities are discussed, the threats the Coast Guard faces are not sitting idly, waiting for us to act. Homegrown violent extremists in the United States have exploded in recent years, al Qaeda affiliates are on the move overseas, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continues to march forward with Americans in their ranks (many of which will eventually come home), and Mexican transnational criminal organizations continue to run drugs north and spill violence over the border—and against our fellow Coast Guardsmen. The threat is real and it is sophisticated. These adversaries know our tactics and are not going away. The only question is how we choose to respond. The Coast Guard needs a clandestine boat capability.
2. “14 U.S.C. 95: Special agents of the Coast Guard Investigative Service law enforcement authority,” Find Law.com, http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/14/I/5/95.
3. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02: Department of Defense, 2014.
5. National Geographic Channel, Border Wars, 1 January 2010–16 January 2013.
6. ADM Paul F. Zukunft, USCG, “Commandant’s Direction 2014,” www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/DOCS/CCG_Direction_2014.pdf.
7. “The 2014 U.S. Coast Guard Virtual Intelligence Summit: Moving Up a Weight Class,” 11–13 June 2014, CGHQ Commandant’s Situation Room & Secure Video Teleconferencing from across the United States.
Lieutenant Schellman serves as the enforcement chief at Sector Boston. He has also served at Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team in San Diego, California, and as platform manager at the Office of Boat Forces (CG-731) in Washington, D.C.