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Houston Chronicle July 8, 2005

Attacks resurrect concerns about U.S. mass transit safety

By Michael Hedges

WASHINGTON - The deadly explosions in London triggered a debate about the long-term safety of American commuters and an immediate security response in U.S. cities where crowded transit systems long have been considered inviting targets for terrorists.

From Washington's Metro trains to New York's Staten Island Ferry, commuters saw increased police muscle aimed at deterring copycat attacks.

Public officials and counterterrorism experts disagreed about how vulnerable U.S. commuters are and how much it would cost in dollars and additional security measures to make them safer.

"I think our transit systems are safe," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. "We've worked with the Department of Transportation, with our state and local partners all across the country to raise the level of everyday protection. And that includes detection equipment, it includes police presence."

Some experts gave a more sobering assessment of security on commuter trains, subways and buses.

"We are not safe," said Ariel Cohen, a counterterrorism expert with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Our commuter transit systems do not have metal detectors, bag searches, random body searches. Our level of vigilance is nowhere near that of Israel, and Israeli buses have been hit again and again."

By morning rush hour in Washington, law enforcement officials already reacted to the London bombings.

Teams of police officers, with flak vests and automatic weapons, could be seen at major subway stations. Bomb-sniffing dogs were circulated among commuters.

But thousands of riders continued to board commuter trains at dozens of stations with no additional security.

'Dramatic safety needs'

Greg Hull, top security official with the American Public Transportation Association, noted that 32 million Americans ride trains, buses and subways on an average day.

The systems have been remarkably safe, Hull said, but "we have very dramatic safety needs that have not been addressed by the federal government."

A study by the APTA identified $6 billion in urgent security needs for U.S. transit systems. They included additional surveillance cameras, devices to detect after-hours intruders and fences, Hull said.

The United States remains behind some countries, including Britain, in protecting mass transit systems, experts said.

"The fact is, as a consequence of 25 years of an IRA bombing campaign directed against the (subway system) in London, the British have security systems far beyond anything we have," said Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert with the RAND Corp. in California.

"They have 5,000 security cameras, specific communications systems for passengers to immediately alert authorities of suspicious packages, detailed response procedures and a heightened public awareness. And despite all that, we see what happened today," he said.

Attacks on subways

Terrorists have been frighteningly successful in attacking mass transit systems worldwide in recent years, often despite tougher, more intrusive security measures of the sort that the United States has shied away from, according to experts.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas in 1995, killing a dozen people and forcing the hospitalization of 5,000. Algerian terrorists struck the Paris subway several times in the mid-1990s, wounding several commuters.

Moscow's public transportation systems have been targeted by Chechen terrorists. Israel has suffered a number of suicide bus bombings. The Madrid train station was attacked by terrorists linked to al-Qaida in 2004, with 191 killed.

At least two attempts on the New York subway system have been foiled, one in 1997 when a suicide bomber got cold feet and contacted police, and another last year before the Republican National Convention, Jenkins said. The two cases underscored the fact that stopping attacks often depends on catching terrorists before they begin their operations, experts said.

"The way people use mass transit, getting on for brief rides sometimes several times a day, it is far from clear that they would be willing to put up with the kind of security involved in air travel — going through security checks, taking off their shoes," said Francois Boo, a terrorism expert with GlobalSecurity.org.

Public officials urged Americans against overreacting.

"Take the subway, ride the train, go to work, play in the parks," New York Gov. George Pataki said.


Copyright 2005, Houston Chronicle