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Lessons from London attacks

USA TODAY | July 11, 2004
By Elliot Blair Smith, Thomas Frank, Julie Schmit and Roger Yu

An informant's tip enabled New York City police to thwart an Islamic terrorist-bomb attack on that city's subway system in 1997. That was four years before al-Qaeda terrorists transformed passenger jets into missiles that ripped into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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But American concerns about the security of this country's rails, buses and ferries are certain to be stirred by the terrorist attacks Thursday in London that targeted rail and bus passengers during the morning rush hour.

U.S. transit authorities say the nation's ground-transportation network requires an immediate $6 billion security upgrade, yet it is budgeted to receive just $100 million from the federal government next year.

The Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security have invested tens of billions of dollars since 9/11 to bolster U.S. defenses against a wide range of terror threats — spending $4.5 billion this year on aviation security alone — but they face growing criticism for not spending more on mass transit.

Now, as Congress prepares to take up the federal government's fiscal 2006 budget next week, Democrats led by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., plan to offer an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill that would increase funding for rail and transit security by more than tenfold to $1.2 billion.

"I can honestly not think of any higher priority," Biden said in an interview.

Indeed, U.S. mass transit carries 16 times more passengers than do the nation's airlines. But the federal government has invested just a penny on security for each passenger, compared with $9.16 per passenger on aviation security, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

"When it comes to security, public transportation riders are treated as second-class citizens by the federal government," says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

Worldwide, terror attacks on passenger railroads and bus systems have been far more numerous and deadly than attacks at commercial airports and on airplanes, according to Rand security analyst Jack Riley. Recent examples: the 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo's subways that left 12 people dead and 5,000 people seriously ill; the Moscow subway bombing in February 2004 that killed 41 people; and the Madrid rail bombing in March 2004 that killed 191 people. Train-related plots also have been uncovered in Singapore and Milan.

National transportation security specialist Brian Jenkins, a researcher at San Jose State University's Mineta Transportation Institute, says trains, subways and buses are "ideal targets" for terrorists who seek to indiscriminately kill large numbers of people and then find ready escape.

In April, the American Public Transportation Association, which represents 1,500 local transit systems, rail operators and industry professionals, gave Congress a lengthy shopping list that included closed-circuit TV surveillance systems, K-9 guard dogs, chemical detection systems, employee drills and training.

David Schanzer, director of Duke University's Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and the Democrats' former staff director at the House Homeland Security Committee, says the London transit attacks are likely to shift the public-funding debate in mass transit's favor for the first time.

The Bush administration might have been moving in that direction already. A Homeland Security Department review of transportation security, originally due to be completed in April, is slated to be out shortly and is likely to incorporate lessons from the London attacks.

Former Bush administration official Stewart Verdery Jr., the department's assistant secretary for border and transportation policy until this year, when he took a job with the lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, says, "Considering the available amount of money, too much of it is going toward aviation security."

While many transportation specialists argue over what security measures make the most sense in terms of cost and public access to the nation's mass transit system, they also point to strong improvements in transit security since the September 2001 attacks.

In New York, the Long Island Rail Road, the nation's largest commuter rail service, instituted a security awareness campaign last year, shortly after the Madrid train bombings. It rolled out posters bearing the message, "If you see something, say something," with a toll-free telephone number to alert authorities.

In the capital, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has developed "special response teams" that monitor stations with machine guns and bomb-sniffing dogs. It also has increased public awareness through an advertising campaign known by its inquisitive slogan: "Excuse me, is that your bag?"

The problem with providing too much security to mass transit is that the cost goes up and the service breaks down. The end result: Public authorities spend on safeguards for a service the public abandons.

Mineta Transportation Institute researcher Jenkins notes that nearly 60,000 airport screeners check the 2 million U.S. air passengers each day. He says hundreds of thousands of screeners would be required to provide equivalent security for the 26 million passengers who travel daily on trains, subways and buses.

By way of example, the Transportation Security Administration instituted a pilot program of screening Amtrak rail passengers and their bags last year only to find that the added measure took too much time for travelers accustomed to arriving at a train station only minutes before departure. Amtrak carries about 68,000 passengers a day, serving a total of 25 million passengers, mostly in the northeastern USA.

"People are not going to want to ride a train if they have to show up two hours ahead of time," said Amtrak spokeswoman Marcie Golgoski. "People like rail and transit the way it is."

Juliette Kayyem, a counterterrorism expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, also argues against surveillance cameras, saying they "are not effective" because the human beings who monitor them respond too slowly: A terrorist may be able to detonate a bomb before authorities track him down.

"You can't child-proof America," says James Carafano, a homeland security expert at Heritage Foundation. "The best investment is to get the terrorists to begin with."

Riley, a homeland security expert at Rand, says the fact that the latest terror assault was successfully carried out in London — which for decades has grappled with a domestic terror threat — is "an indication of how difficult it is to prevent these kinds of attacks."

Nevertheless, he endorses surveillance cameras along with improved lighting and ventilation at bus and train stations, and "blast-resistant" trash cans. "Beyond those measures, you start to get into very expensive and not-all-that-effective" safeguards, he says.

But no proposed safeguard wins universal praise.

"We're not going to be able to secure everything in one stroke, but there are common-sense things that make a difference," says Schanzer of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

For now, the fight will center in Congress. Former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir says the federal government "has to move at a faster pace" in improving mass-transit security.

It has improved some since the time a few years ago when the Rev. Stephen McWhorter, rector of St. David's Episcopal Church in Ashburn, Va., witnessed a one-man terror attack on a city bus he was riding in Santa Monica, Calif. McWhorter recently told his congregation about his experience of watching an obviously deranged man board the bus and begin stabbing a female passenger.

As two passengers restrained the assailant, McWhorter says, he applied a tourniquet to the wounded passenger and ordered the driver, "Take us to the nearest hospital."

The driver, unaccustomed to such direction, or such pressure, replied, "It isn't on the route." McWhorter, though a priest, says he replied, "To hell with that. It doesn't matter what the route is."

 

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