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Reports of N.J. rail lines being videotaped are probed

(The following article by John P. Martin was posted on the Star-Ledger website on May 22.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey homeland security officials said yesterday they are investigating reports of people seen filming or videotaping rail lines and stations between New York and Philadelphia in recent weeks.

"Over the past month, there have been several instances of what we would term 'suspicious conduct' that triggered our interest and our investigative resources," Attorney General Peter Harvey said in an interview.

Such tips from the public aren't unheard of, but Harvey said it was unusual to receive so many tips -- about a half dozen -- in a such short span.

Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism, declined yesterday to discuss the details of the reports. But the office sent an advisory to local police agencies urging them to keep an eye out for such activity, he said.

"The Office of Counter-Terrorism is looking into, as it always does, suspicious incident reports that have to do with surveillance of or near railroad facilities," said Shatzkin. "There's no specific threat."

Federal authorities said state officials had alerted them to the suspicious activity along the tracks, but they declined to elaborate. They noted that such reports occur routinely, and sometimes surge after high-profile incidents or warnings.

"People are reporting anything that looks vaguely suspicious and we're following up on it," said FBI spokesman Steve Kodak.

The nation has been on elevated alert level -- code yellow -- since the beginning of the year. In the past, the Department of Homeland Security has raised the alert level before key national holidays, peak travel times and notable events. Some officials expect the terror level to increase again in the coming months, as the presidential election heats up and the parties hold their national conventions.

The March 11 terror bombing at Madrid train stations has also prompted counter-terrorism officials to intensify their scrutiny of rail security. NJ Transit recently raised the ire of railroad buffs and civil libertarians by requiring permits to take photographs of agency property, including trains.

On Thursday night, Amtrak stopped and searched three trains, including a pair of Acela Express high-speed trains traveling from New York to Washington, D.C.

Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said the trains were searched "as a precaution" based on an anonymous threat called into Baltimore police. Nothing was found.

And earlier this month, commuter rail officials in Philadelphia found a motion-detector device in a rail yard and turned it over to the FBI.

Although the device is sold in stores, its presence in a rail yard made FBI agents suspicious, FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams said. She said the device was being tested for fingerprints.

"We know that it's a commercial motion detector," Williams said Friday. "We're attempting to find out what the device is, why it was there and who put it there."

NJ Transit spokeswoman Penny Bassett Hackett said that agency has increased its uniformed police force by more than 60 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Four police canine units also have been added.

Monday, May 24, 2004

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