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Fear of election-year terror on the rails

(The following article by Thomas Frank was posted on Newsday.com on July 12.)

WASHINGTON -- Security planners for the upcoming political conventions are highly concerned about a train bombing and are taking unprecedented steps to safeguard subway and commuter lines in host cities New York and Boston.

Lethal terrorist train bombings in Madrid and Moscow this year have prompted New York City to nearly double the number of police deployed for the Republican National Convention from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 at Madison Square Garden.

"The recent bombings," city officials wrote in an internal memo, "have caused increased concern that during the Republican National Convention, New York City may become an even more attractive target for a similar attack."

The NYPD has decided to add 5,500 police to flood the subway system, commuter trains and Penn Station during convention week, according to the memo, which gives the first precise description of police deployment. That's in addition to the 6,500 police who will patrol the Garden, hotels, bridges and tunnels, protest sites and points of interest for delegates, the memo states.

The 12,000 police to be deployed represent one-third of the department.

When Democrats convene in Boston's FleetCenter July 26-29, officials will close North Station, the city's largest subway and rail terminal, which abuts the center.

Passengers on subways running under the FleetCenter will be barred from carrying anything larger than a briefcase or pocketbook. On other subway lines, large items will be permitted during convention week but searched in all cases.

No plans have been announced to search New York subway riders' belongings, but a transit official said, "If you've got a big box, we'll check it out." Police also will board each Long Island Rail Road, NJ Transit and Amtrak train at the stop immediately before Penn Station and search it with bomb-sniffing dogs.

The measures come as government officials warn that al-Qaida is planning an attack to disrupt the November election, possibly modeled after the March bombing by al-Qaida associates of four commuter trains in Madrid that killed 190 people. Three days later, Spanish voters ousted the party that had supported the Iraq war.

"There is intelligence that indicates that they are looking at various transportation systems," a senior intelligence official said of al-Qaida's plans for attacking in the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said, "Clearly, given the particular [convention] venues that have been selected and the proximity to railroad and mass transit, that is a concern. But we feel we can adequately address it."

Much of the security in New York and Boston is directed at protecting the convention sites - a strategy that experts say should deter al-Qaida attackers, who prefer few barriers and big surprises, but may simply steer them elsewhere.

"I quite frankly am not as concerned about a terrorist incident during the [Republican] convention as I am about an incident in the weeks leading up to it," said Jerome Hauer, former director of New York City's emergency management office. "If terrorists do something before the convention, you could have a chilling effect on people coming into town."

Randall Larsen, CEO of Homeland Security Associates, a Virginia consulting firm, doubts terrorists would try to penetrate convention security.

"But the idea of doing something to a soft target at the same time that the conventions were going on would be much more lucrative," he said. "You'd have a much higher probability of success, and the success would have the same impact."

More restrictions in Boston

Security experts say New York is a more likely target than Boston because it features President George W. Bush, who is closely associated with the Iraq war.

New York expects to spend about $76 million on security, including $59 million in police overtime. Boston's costs will be $50 million. Both cities are to get $50 million from the federal government.

But Boston has announced far more restrictions and closures than New York because of the FleetCenter location.

North Station will be closed during the Democratic convention because subway and commuter trains stop there just below the FleetCenter. Passengers ordinarily exit through the center, to which access will be tightly controlled during the convention.

At Penn Station, which will be open through the convention but with six of eight exits closed, travelers can come and go without entering Madison Square Garden. And the Penn Station subway and rail lines are roughly five stories below the Garden, with concrete floors and ceilings providing additional protection.

"If a guy's bringing a suitcase full of [explosives], you're not going to blow Madison Square Garden up," a New York official said. "They would need a really, really big bomb to do any damage from Penn Station up into Madison Square Garden. You're probably talking two or three tractor-trailers."

The bombs in Moscow, where 41 people were killed on a subway car in February, and in Madrid were contained in backpacks and suitcases.

A truck-bomb attack also concerns intelligence officials. One noted "al-Qaida's long history of successful attacks overseas" using truck bombs.

The Secret Service, in charge of security at both conventions, is setting up a 600-foot "blast zone" around the convention sites where vehicles are restricted, said John Kennedy, a Boston traffic consultant who reviewed security plans there.

In New York, about 30 blocks around Madison Square Garden will be closed when the convention is in session, mostly after 8:30 p.m.

But in Boston, the zone will force the partial closure of a six-mile stretch of Interstate 93, which runs through downtown Boston just 40 feet from the FleetCenter: The interstate, along with two drives, two bridges and a tunnel, will close to Boston-bound traffic in the late afternoon and evenings of convention week.

One lane of the four-lane interstate will be closed at all times in both directions, reserved for emergency vehicles and shuttle buses.

With studies predicting 10- to 12-mile backups, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has urged employers to give workers vacation during convention week or allow them to work from home or on flexible shifts.

The Beacon Hill Institute, a Boston think tank, predicts local workers will spend 1.2 million more hours commuting during the convention.

"The whole mood of the city has changed," said David Tuerck, the institute's executive director. "The mayor's no longer talking about economic benefits to the city. He's talking about, let's get past it."

In a recent poll, 48 percent of Boston-area residents said holding the convention in the city was a bad idea.

Menino spokesman Seth Gitell said his boss "has attempted to be as up front, clear and direct with the people of Boston as possible and wants to make sure as much information gets out as possible."

By contrast, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says people who avoid the Garden area "won't even know the convention is in town."

But some security experts and commuters expect citywide congestion from the street closings and the presence of several hundred thousand protesters.

Secret Service spokeswoman Ann Roman said security planning in New York "is still a work in progress."

Sudden closings predicted

Harvey Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University's C.W. Post campus and author of "The Encyclopedia of Terrorism," said there could be sudden closings of bridges, tunnels, drives and streets. "As a security technique, you have random sporadic shutdowns to throw people off," Kushner said.

Many people are planning to take the week off, said Gerry Bringmann, vice chairman of Long Island Rail Road Commuters' Council. "They really don't want to be in the city during convention week," he said.

Yet some experts question the likelihood of a convention-related attack, saying al-Qaida has shown less concern for striking events than for hitting high-profile, accessible targets. The commission investigating Sept. 11 recently reported that those attacks were timed based on when the hijacking teams were ready.

"They're going to go for a target rather than a date. They like physical targets like the World Trade Center. The symbolism of a convention may be a little more remote," said Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Plus, "they don't have to attack the conventions because they've already gotten a lot of what they want without doing anything," Crenshaw said. "We're forced into this defensive mode where we have to spend large amounts of money and inconvenience people."

Monday, July 12, 2004

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