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FBI Seeks Records on Scuba Training

Inquiry: Agency believes terrorists want to develop an underwater attack capability.

June 11, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Exercising "an abundance of caution," the FBI says it is scrutinizing scuba shops around the country based on information that "various terrorist elements have sought to develop an offensive scuba diver capability."

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

Meanwhile, agents are fanning out to the nation's estimated 1,200 scuba shops to inquire about people who enrolled in diving classes but withdrew before their names could be added to a list of certified divers.

They want to know of anyone who asks strange questions or shows a sudden and unusual interest in an underwater apparatus called a re-breather, 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 A. Sylvester, counterterrorism squad supervisor in the FBI's San Diego office. "We've been checking with all scuba-certified instructors."

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.

Ken Kurtis, co-owner of Reef Seekers Dive Co. in Beverly Hills, called the demand for wholesale lists of students "reprehensible and unconstitutional."

"It's one thing if they came in and asked, 'Do you know something about these individuals?' " Kurtis said. "It's another thing to say, 'Give me everything you've got on everybody who you taught to dive or bought something in your store.'

"It's a fishing exhibition. It's totalitarianism, and it's ridiculous."

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

Compared to 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.

U.S. Navy Seals train for years to master underwater demolition.

They point out that the devastating attack on the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen could not have been carried out underwater. It took a boat to haul enough explosives to cause the extensive damage.

Still, a year ago, it would have sounded farfetched to think a group could fly planes into buildings, turning passenger airlines into bombs, Sylvester said.

"The Al Qaeda has taken years to plan operations. It's not beyond the realm of possibility for them to think of this type of attack," Sylvester said. "Obviously San Diego and Los Angeles and other coastal cities have viable water targets, ranging from commercial tankers to Navy ships."

According to the FBI, the scuba warning came out before Memorial Day from information gleaned from detainees held at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other sources.

"While there is no evidence of operational planning to utilize scuba divers to carry out attacks within the United States, there is a body of information showing a desire to obtain such credibility," the warning stated.

So far, said FBI spokesman Bill Carter, "the information in this case is unconfirmed and uncorroborated. But we must assess every potential treat, out of an abundance of caution."

Jeff Nadler, a vice president of the Professional Assn. of Dive Instructors, said agents began to enter some of its 1,000 affiliated dive stores right before the Memorial Day weekend demanding all records of past students.

"We know of one dive store that told the agent they were too busy," Nadler said. "The agent returned with a subpoena."

So the Professional Assn. of Dive Instructors, the nation's largest dive certification organization, decided to furnish the FBI with computerized records of 2 million students--with some restrictions.

"We were concerned about privacy issues," Nadler said. "We wanted some assurances, which they agreed to, that this was proprietary information not to be used for any other purpose than investigation into potential terrorism. And they would return us the list when they were done."

Jim Bram, president of the National Assn. of Underwater Instructors, said his nonprofit group also supplied the FBI with the names of students from the last three years.

So did Scuba Schools International, another dive certification group. These three groups certify about 98% of all U.S. divers.

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