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Chertoff says U.S. transit is safe, but not perfect

(The following article by Brian Knowlton was posted on the International Herald Tribune website on July 10.)

WASHINGTON -- American trains, subways and buses are safer now than before the London or Madrid bombing attacks, top homeland security officials said today. But they added that full protection was impossible and that the best security came from finding terrorists early and engaging them, as in Iraq.

The secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, retreated slightly from a comment Thursday, the day of the London blast, when he said that the United States transit system was safe.

"There is no perfect security in life," he said on the ABC News program "This Week," "but we are constantly raising the baseline of our security."

Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House security adviser, also hedged her assurances about transit security. "We look every day to make it safe," she said on "Fox News Sunday." "But there are no guarantees in this world."

Given the huge challenge of protecting rail and bus systems used daily by millions, she said, the best approach was to keep terrorists under attack in Iraq and Afghanistan and out of the United States.

Both Mr. Chertoff and Ms. Townsend defended current levels of federal spending for transit security, which fall far below those for aviation security. Local and state governments provide substantial security, they said. Both said that federal spending needs would be re-examined.

Mr. Chertoff has said security money needed to be shifted increasingly from low-risk targets - millions are now spent in remote, rural areas like Wyoming, of little apparent interest to terrorists - to higher-threat areas like New York or Washington.

The officials said more guards would be provided for transit safety, and more sniffer dogs would be employed. But they said the very nature of mass transit - an open system meant to quickly handle millions of passengers a day - made security harder to provide than for the closed system of air travel.

American authorities have known for some time, Ms. Townsend said, that Al Qaeda was interested in attacking transit systems, "because they did see the effectiveness of the Madrid bombing." But she and Mr. Chertoff acknowledged that the United States had no specific warning of the London attack.

The homeland security chief said that the London bombers clearly were "sympathetic to Al Qaeda," but that it was too early to assert a definite link to that group's leader, Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Chertoff said American authorities were aggressively pursuing cells of terrorists based in the United States that may be inactive until receiving an order to strike. "The lesson of things like London and Madrid is, you don't wait until the cell becomes operational," he said, "because if you wait until the fuse is lit you're waiting too long."

Early prevention of terrorist acts - starting by engaging terrorists overseas - is the surest prescription, Ms. Townsend said. "That's why you fight them away," she said. "That's why you're in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting them there so you don't have to fight them here."

She sharply criticized those who argue that those wars, rather than lowering the global terror threat, were instead generating an angry new generation of terrorists.

"I think that's wrong," Ms. Townsend said. "And I think we know that from the prior attacks. That's the bad guys' argument, is that they're conducting the attack in London because the British are in Iraq.

"That's a lie and that's simply their propaganda."

By aligning with "the bad guys" those who question the administration's insistence that the United States military effort abroad makes Americans safer, Ms. Townsend appeared to risk reopening fierce arguments over the earlier depiction of some who criticized the administration's war policies as unpatriotic.

Shortly before the Iraq war, Tom Daschle - then the Senate Democratic leader - came under intense political criticism when he called on the administration to set clearer goals for the fight against terrorism.

Mr. Chertoff, meanwhile, appeared to signal a more nuanced and flexible approach to terror warnings than was pursued under his predecessor, Tom Ridge.

Authorities raised the color-coded warning Thursday to orange, the second-highest level, but did so - for the first time - only for ground transit systems. And Mr. Chertoff suggested that the change could be reversed soon.

"We're obviously going to continue into Monday with the rush hours," he said. "We'll continue to look at it next week and we'll see where we are."

In view of the London attacks, the administration seems certain to face increased political pressure to increase transit security spending.

A senior Democrat, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, said the administration had already waited too long. "We should have responded to that a year and a half ago," he said on "Fox News Sunday," referring to the Madrid train bombings that killed nearly 200 people.

He said much more should be spent to protect transit systems, chemical plants and container ports.

And Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the intelligence committee, praised the administration's anti-terror efforts but added, "I don't know if we have enough money to guard every subway, every train station, whatever."

"Obviously, we must invest more," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

Monday, July 11, 2005

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