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Security on U.S. transit systems is stepped up

(The following article by Eric Lipton was posted on the New York Times website on July 7.)

WASHINGTON -- Concerned about a "copycat attack," federal officials elevated the alert for the nation's rail, subway and bus systems on Thursday, prompting more police patrols, searches by bomb-sniffing dogs and inspections of packages across the country.

While Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that there was no specific evidence of a threat against the United States, he said the bombings in London necessitated tighter security here.

"Obviously, we're concerned about the possibility of a copycat attack," Mr. Chertoff said at a news conference.

Raising the agency's color-coded alert from yellow to orange, the second highest on a five-point scale, was a first for Mr. Chertoff, a former federal judge who took over the department in February with a vow to avoid creating unnecessary anxiety among Americans.

Even in announcing the warning - which applies only to mass transit systems, unlike the broader security alerts the agency typically issued in the past - Mr. Chertoff tried to reassure the public that it is safe to take subway, bus or light rail lines to work.

"We are not suggesting that people avoid public transportation systems," Mr. Chertoff said in his eight-minute appearance, in which he largely stuck carefully to a prepared text. "Rather we are asking that they use those systems, but with an increased awareness of their surroundings."

In cities like New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, the elevated alert translated immediately into additional security measures.

State troopers in Boston rode buses and patrolled subway platforms. In Miami, officers conducted random searches in bus and rail stations. In Washington, a police helicopter hovered over the capital and officials scrutinized video feeds from wall-mounted cameras throughout the city.

Workers even passed out yellow and black "See it? Say it!" cards urging Washington subway riders to report any suspicious activity.

As a result of the heightened alert, reports of suspicious items skyrocketed in some cities. A transit employee in Washington reported a suspicious package at the Medical Center station along the crowded Red line this morning, forcing a shutdown of trains in Maryland for about an hour.

But again and again, public officials urged calm.

"We're not raising the red flag and saying they're coming to get us," Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado said at a news conference in Denver. "We're just being prudent."

Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington said, "Live your lives, go to work, spend time with your families, stand up to these terrorists."

Even without evidence of a threat to the United States, the rapid response came Thursday because security officials acknowledge that mass transit systems are among the most vulnerable of targets.

With tens of thousands of buses, railcars and subways nationwide ferrying 32 million riders daily, it is virtually impossible to protect every piece of the transit network, said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

Even so, Mr. Millar and several members of Congress said, far too little money has been spent to improve security at train and subway stations. About $250 million in federal funds has been spent for mass transit in the last three years, compared with more than $15 billion to protect the nation's airplanes.

"There are various bits and pieces of a security plan for transit, but not enough," said Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

Others argue that the focus must be on tracking down terrorists who might choose to make them targets.

"It is vital that the civilized world unite in the effort to hunt down all of the perpetrators who are still living," said Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "They are as much a threat to Europe, to America, and to the civilized world as they are to London."

Mr. Chertoff said that he was convinced the nation's transit system was safer today than it was before September 2001, and that it had improved even since the March 2004 bombings in Madrid. "I think we have a very safe system," he said. "But the fact remains, we've had an incident in London."

Late Thursday, administration officials sent out a bulletin to state, local and federal officials warning about a concern that the attack in London would be followed by one in the United States. The warning identified transit systems as the most likely target, but also pointed to public gathering places and commercial buildings and spoke of vehicle bombs and plane hijackings.

Some politicians and frequent administration critics agreed Thursday that the federal response to the London attacks demonstrated that the administration was getting more adept at handling threats. In President Bush's first term, various officials sometimes appeared to be competing for the spotlight when threat levels were raised. On Thursday, there was never any ambiguity that Mr. Chertoff would be the lead spokesman for the administration.

Officials made calls to government and public safety officials nationwide, urging them to take immediate steps to enhance security.

Mr. Chertoff's low-key manner won bipartisan praise from leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee the department, including those who have ridiculed the color-coded alert system.

Mr. Chertoff, in his news conference, did not hesitate to say that he was unaware of any advance intelligence that the attacks in London were going to take place and that he had "no specific, credible information suggesting an imminent attack" in the United States. He also declined to speculate about who might be responsible for the attack.

"The response was measured and appropriate," said Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Terry Aguayo in Miami, Pam Belluck in Boston, David Bernstein and Michael Wilson in Chicago, John M. Broder and Andrew Pollack in Los Angeles, James Dao in Washington, Kirk Johnson in Denver and Dean E. Murphy in San Francisco.

Friday, July 8, 2005

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