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Boston Globe Editorial July 28, 2005

Closely watched trains

 

MBTA OFFICIALS are rushing ahead to wire downtown subway platforms and tunnels for cellphone use despite a lack of consensus among security experts about the wisdom of the approach. The T should pull back until federal transportation experts can provide guidance.

Public transportation systems are especially vulnerable to acts of terrorism. The T trusts heavily in technology to protect the public. But officials may need to harden their approach in light of the July 7 bombings in London that killed 56 and wounded more than 700.

From highways in Iraq to commuter trains in Madrid, terrorists have used cellphones as timing mechanisms or transmission devices to detonate bombs. But proponents say cellphones are also protection against terrorists and criminals. The MBTA's general manager, Daniel Grabauskas, is convinced that the installation of an underground wireless communications network will make it easier for the public to report suspicious objects or activities. It makes little sense, he says, to target cellphones when many devices can be used to detonate bombs. John Martino, deputy chief of the MBTA Police, is even more bullish. He says the public safety advantages outweigh the disadvantages ''99 to 1," adding that T officials have the capability to disable the system ''immediately" if they suspect a threat.

Security experts, however, are not so sure. ''It's a really hard issue . . . damned if you do, damned if you don't," says Sujeet Shenoi, a computer science professor at the University of Tulsa who conducts government-sponsored research on protecting critical infrastructure. He encourages authorities to explore safer options, such as additional security phones on subway platforms. The T currently provides call boxes linked to the transit police and is expanding its system of monitoring rooms in key stations.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based think tank, says that the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration have left local officials stranded on the question of whether the potential for underground devastation outweighs the benefits of communication. ''I wish some of my tax money would go toward getting an answer," he says.

Ann Davis, regional spokeswoman for the TSA, says the agency provides ''best practices" information to transit authorities. But she could not offer a recommendation on the question of cellular service in the subways. Federal homeland security officials need to provide unambiguous guidance. Security for mass transit systems is not an area for devolving responsibility to the states.

Meanwhile, the T should look to the actions of the public safety officials who operate under the greatest threat. Officials in London eliminated cellular service in the vicinity of the attacks July 7, even though the blasts were later determined to be the work of suicide bombers. The government needed to set aside mobile communications capacity for emergency workers. Disrupting service could also be used to foil any terrorist plot to detonate a second round of explosions aimed at killing first responders. In New York and New Jersey, Port Authority officials also eliminated cellphone service in car tunnels leading to Manhattan after the London blasts. Cellphone service is not available in the New York City subway system, and there is no immediate plan to install it.

If the first reaction of transit officials elsewhere is to suspend wireless communication service after a bombing, then Massachusetts officials should be reluctant to add it. At a minimum, Grabauskas should suspend the work until the completion of a security audit of the T now underway by the Department of Telecommunications and Energy.

Grabauskas, who took over T operations in May, touts the system's closed-circuit cameras, sensors for chemical agents, intrusion detection devices, and antiterror training for employees. But he is reluctant to take higher-profile security measures absent a specific threat.

Random searches in the subway system are a sound method to keep terrorists off guard and are currently used in New York City. But Grabauskas cites such searches as only ''a tool in the toolbox."

Such a tool should be put to use for prevention purposes. It is no secret that subway stations are prime targets for terrorists due to the potential for mass casualties and panic. The London bombings made clear that national security concerns cannot be limited to major events, like last year's Democratic National Convention in Boston, when a federal court approved and police conducted random searches of transit riders.

Concerns about unreasonable search and seizure are never far from the surface. Searches require careful procedures designed to protect against constitutional violations and ethnic profiling, but the situation does not call for inaction. The T has shown it is capable of searching riders while respecting civil liberties. During the DNC, police swabbed the bags and packages of transit riders with a sensor pad that was then run through an explosive-sensing machine. The method didn't require passengers to open their packs. Passengers who objected to such security measures were denied entry but were free to leave the station.

The T is making good use of dogs trained to sniff out explosives. The system employs four such canines and will be adding at least two more shortly. Dogs are useful in both individual searches and sweeps of trains, and they pose fewer constitutional concerns. The Supreme Court has already ruled that drug-sniffing dogs do not raise Fourth Amendment problems.

''Dogs have no political axes to grind," says Carlo Boccia, Boston's director of homeland security. ''You can be a priest, rabbi, or imam. If you have a bomb, you're going down."

For decades, convenience and price were the watchwords for public transit planners seeking to attract and retain riders. The deadly attacks on the London subway created a new reality for public transportation, one where safety must be a touchstone.


Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company