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MBTA halts baggage screening

(The following article by Anthony Flint was posted on the Boston Globe website on August 13.)

BOSTON -- Despite vows to continue random bag-screening after the Democratic National Convention, no searches have been conducted on the MBTA since the convention ended late last month, and officials privately acknowledge that there are no plans to reinstate the controversial, first-in-the-nation policy anytime soon.

State Transportation Secretary Daniel A. Grabauskas said yesterday that the T will not say whether bag searches have been conducted since the convention "or where or when we may conduct them in the future.

"For the random baggage inspections to be effective, it's inappropriate to alert those we are trying to intercept as to where these inspections will be conducted or when," Grabauskas said.

But in interviews, other MBTA officials, riders, and the civil liberties groups that challenged the policy all said that baggage screening, conducted at different subway and commuter rail stations during the week of the convention, ended when most delegates returned home on July 30.

The checks, in which passengers were selected at random to have their bags screened by an explosives-detecting machine, were deemed a success by security planners. But they are difficult to justify without a major event like the convention, according to one MBTA official.

During the convention week, a federal judge OK'd another feature of the T's security plan -- on-board searches of all passengers on the Orange Line prior to trains passing by the convention venue, the FleetCenter. But the judge did not address the legitimacy of stopping the estimated 1.1 million people who use the transit system every day.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have all vowed to renew their legal challenge if the T reinstates the policy, which the groups say violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

In an interview during the week of the convention, Michael Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said that the T would evaluate the expense and the effectiveness of the random bag checks, but that the searches would continue, in some form, after the Democratic convention.

The agency might reinstate the baggage screenings totally at random or when the threat level is increased or if there are terror warnings specific to transit, Mulhern said.

The bag checks began after the MBTA received warnings from US homeland security officials that terrorists were planning an attack designed to disrupt the country's political process and that transit systems were specifically a target.

Transit systems continue to be a concern, particularly following the deadly attack on 10 commuter trains in Madrid in March, but the political spectacle of the convention came and went without incident.

At yesterday's MBTA board meeting, Mulhern congratulated T employees for the convention week, during which there were no major incidents.

A Transportation Department spokesman, Jon Carlisle, said after the meeting that the T was still compiling figures on the cost of the screening program, how many people were stopped, and how many passengers refused to consent to a search and were denied entry to the system.

Members of the T Riders Union, a passenger advocacy group, said at the meeting that riders should be included in the evaluation of the screening policy, but were being excluded.

MBTA officials have said they welcome any feedback, but are committed to keeping the transit system secure.

Some riders were tolerant of the random searches during the week of the convention and said they believed that the security concerns surrounding the event justified the policy, Matsueda said.

But those same people would object to searches becoming a permanent part of using the MBTA, he said.

Friday, August 13, 2004

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