04/07/2011 03:32 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2011

The Joke Is on Air Travelers

Does it make sense to make airport security ever tighter and more intrusive while our shorelines are almost totally unsecured? Until recently, I kept my mouth shut when I was patted down more times than most because I have a pacemaker and cannot go through the screening gates. But then I stumbled upon a great gap in our security. I first learned about it when a friend hitched a ride on a sailboat that left Isla Mujeres in Mexico and docked at the owner's home in St. Petersburg, Florida. As the passengers came ashore and unloaded the boat, they did not clear any customs or show their passports. My friend remembers someone muttering that they ought to check in with the local police, but no one bothered. I then checked with the Coast Guard and learned that our shorelines--some 95,000 miles, more than ten times longer than the land-based borders with Mexico and Canada combined--are wide open.

True, Al Qaeda keeps trying to bring down some more airlines, it seems, because it is looking for another spectacular hit. However, it has shown that it knows that boats can be used to inflict major, headline-grabbing damage--its agents blew a sizable hole in the U.S.S. Cole. Other terrorists used boats for their dramatic attacks on Mumbai. And while there is a limit to what a terrorist can carry when boarding an airline, even small vessels can readily accommodate a terrorist SWAT team and a sizable nuclear bomb and still have room to spare. Moreover, many boats have easy access to critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants, oil tankers, and refineries.

DHS faces a unique challenge here, because there are some 17 million small vessels floating around. Unlike major airports and train stations, where most people are funneled through small entry-points at specific arrival and departure times, small boats may land anywhere at any time. They travel great distances, visit other countries, and take on passengers or loads. When they return--or arrive for the first time--to the United States, they go unchecked.

DHS does not mince words either about the size of the challenge or its inability to get its arms around it. It states:

The large numbers of small vessels and the dearth of information regarding the user, owner, or operating patterns of those vessels make it extremely difficult to precisely identify the population and distinguish legitimate users from those with the intent to do harm. When evaluating and addressing the risks, law enforcement agencies are faced with sorting through thousands of small vessels, which can be closely intermingled with large commercial cargo vessels, cruise vessels, military warships, and critical infrastructure, at or near hundreds of seaports, along thousands of miles of U.S. coastline and navigable waterways, or originating from foreign waters.

DHS is trying to handle this challenge to our security through a neighborhood watch program called America's Waterway Watch. Its mainstay is a 24-hour national hotline established by the Coast Guard in 2005. DHS hopes that recreational boaters and the public will call the hotline to report suspicious activity on the water. I write "hopes" because, according to DHS's own Office of Inspector General, it is likely that more than 90 percent of registered boaters do not even know that the program exists.

DHS also promotes the Pleasure Boat Reporting System established by the Tariff Act of 1930, which requires that all small vessel operators who arrive from foreign ports telephone the local U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office (CBP) upon arrival. However, this requirement does not apply to those who merely sailed, for days at end, or met with other boaters on the high sea. Even if few choose to comply with this requirement, by its own admission, there is little DHS can do--because of the huge number of boats involved and because they can and do dock most any place, any time. Above all, terrorists, one can safely assume, are unlikely to comply.

It is like triple-locking the front door and windows and keeping those in the back wide open. If our budgets were not as tight as they are, I would call for giving the Coast Guard a whole TSA wing of its own. However, in this day and age, the best we can do is ask the TSA agents in the airports to look less often for bombs in the diapers of toddlers, let most senior citizens stay in their wheel chairs, and fuss less about my water bottle--and send the agents thus freed to hit the beaches.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).