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Opinion: Reality check on rail security

(The following editorial appeared on the Palm Beach Post website on April 23.)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Americans know they increasingly are under surveillance, even if they don't think about it when cruising the mall or the Internet. In public transportation, the proliferation of security cameras and personnel is being supplemented by new systems for spotting potential terrorists. The limits of those systems, however, remain glaring.

Next month, the Transportation Security Administration starts its new "Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot" program at a Maryland Amtrak station convenient to the Department of Homeland Security's Washington headquarters. Airport-style screening equipment is deemed impractical, so bomb-sniffing dogs and electronic detectors are among the techniques to be tested. Another test program, using "behavior pattern recognition," is under way at Boston's Logan International Airport, from which two of the hijacked 9/11 planes departed. Specially trained uniformed and undercover law-enforcement officials will watch for odd or suspicious behavior in an effort to try to keep dangerous people, not just objects, off planes.

Attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid was flagged, however, for lacking even carry-on luggage for a Paris-to-Miami flight, yet after questioning still was allowed to board. Tampa police were unable to claim a single positive ID after two years of using facial-recognition technology that was supposed to match criminals with databases. The head of the American Civil Liberties Union racial profiling project lodged a complaint after arousing suspicions while traveling through Logan in October. So it's critical to assess the effectiveness of the proliferating security approaches and how far they invade privacy.

Air and seaports are getting overdue attention, but tracks must be laid to avoid train attacks such as the one last month in Spain. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., correctly called on Commerce, Science and Transportation committee members "to ascertain the full scope and status of the Department of Homeland Security's rail security efforts. We have received a lot of assurances, but I believe we've seen very little action." The panel has approved $1.2 billion of your money, and you are the test subjects, so watch closely to see whether these feel-good measures are changes that actually enhance security.

Friday, April 23, 2004

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