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Boston, New York rail lines vulnerable

(The following article by Bill Gertz and Audrey Hudson was posted on the Washington Times website on July 9.)

WASHINGTON -- A national intelligence agency warns in a new report that al Qaeda terrorists can easily attack U.S. rail lines in Boston and New York, where the presidential nominating conventions will be held later this summer.

Disclosure of the new information came yesterday as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge reported that al Qaeda is moving ahead with plans for a major terror attack "in an effort to disrupt our democratic process."

Mr. Ridge repeated warnings issued by federal authorities in May that terrorists are planning to attack either at this summer's political conventions or some time before the November presidential election. The attacks could be carried out against trains or large gatherings using truck bombs or hijacked airliners, according to intelligence officials.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) stated in a classified report circulated within the government last week that rail lines in both cities are vulnerable to a terrorist bombing, according to officials familiar with the report.

The report is based on an assessment of the Northeast rail systems and the fact that al Qaeda terrorists scored a major political success by attacking rail cars in Madrid on March 11. The 10 bombs exploded on four trains killing 191 persons and injuring more than 1,800.

The bombing came three days before elections that ousted Spain's pro-U.S. government and voted in an anti-war socialist government.

"There has been fairly steady stream of threat reporting directed toward Northeast corridor," said one security official.

The NGA report did not include specific threats to the Boston and New York rail systems but contained a detailed assessment of the weaknesses in the security of the rail network, the officials said.

Asked about the threat to rail systems in Boston and New York, Mr. Ridge said: "Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have targeted mass transit," noting the terrorist attacks by Islamist groups on trains in Spain and Russia and a Japanese terrorist group's use of nerve gas in a Tokyo subway.

"Clearly, given the particular venues that have been selected and the proximity to railroad and mass transit, that is of a concern, but we feel we can adequately address it," he said.

Mr. Ridge said both the Republican convention in New York and the Democratic convention in Boston were designated as special security events, making the U.S. Secret Service the lead agency in charge of security.

"As part of the overall comprehensive security plan, the Secret Service is working with those mass transit agencies," he said.

Mr. Ridge said worries about rail and subway attacks "at the local level at the convention sites" and nationally are based on past targeting by terrorist groups.

In New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that "additional precautions" have been taken to protect transit systems from attack because of the Republican convention, which begins Aug. 30. The Democratic convention begins July 26.

Meanwhile, Amtrak recently dismissed its police chief for the mid-Atlantic region amid security problems for the national railroad system, Amtrak officials said.

Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel declined to comment on the replacement of Earnest Frazier, the Amtrak police chief, citing privacy concerns. However, Mr. Stessel confirmed that Amtrak is seeking a new police chief.

One Amtrak official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Amtrak's security is poor because it has only 325 security officials for the entire nationwide rail network.

"We have all this infrastructure and only have 325 police officers, most of them in management," the official said.

Amtrak on Tuesday announced that it has appointed Alfred J. Broadbent as the new vice president of corporate security. Mr. Broadbent until recently was the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's assistant chief for special services command, the unit in charge of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness.

Mr. Ridge said during a press conference that despite the intelligence reports of an impending terrorist attack, the terror threat level will not be raised. The current national alert level is "yellow" or elevated risk of attack.

"We wouldn't want to necessarily broadcast to the terrorists what it would take for us to raise it to orange. But we know internally that there are a couple of tripwires that might cause us to pull everybody together to begin that whole process," the secretary said.

Contingency plans are in the works to deal with any disruption at the party conventions or before the Nov. 2 election.

"Credible reporting now indicates that al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process," Mr. Ridge said. "Based on the attack in Madrid and recent interdictions in England, Jordan and Italy, we know that they have the capability to succeed and hold the mistaken belief that their attacks will have an impact on America's resolve.

"We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack but, along with the CIA, FBI and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge," he added.

Also yesterday, the entire Senate met with officials from Homeland Security and the FBI to get updates about the threats. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said "the nature of the risk is very nonspecific" but that "general intelligence" indicates there may be an attempt to disrupt the election.

"There is obviously no reason for panic or no reason for paralysis. But the fact of the general intelligence that the country is at some increased risk between now and the time of the presidential election -- it is important for people to be aware of that," Mr. Frist said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters the information was "troublesome, it's worrisome."

Friday, July 9, 2004

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