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Terror just a key turn away?

(New York television station CBS 2 posted the following article by Scott Weinerger on its website on September 6.)

NEW YORK -- A new state report has found a major security breach involving Metro-North Railroad and Grand Central Terminal. Sensitive documents and keys that access the entire rail system have been stolen.

The items were inside a backpack belonging to a Metro-North employee, who told police he mistakenly left it on the train. The backpack was found days later and the keys and documents were gone.

There is no doubt that the second largest commuter railroad in the nation remains an attractive target for terrorists.

On any given workday a quarter of a million riders board Metro-North trains.

We have seen the devastation of a terrorist attack on trains unfold all over the globe -- Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and most recently in Mumbai, India, where a terrorist bomb killed 186 passengers.

So you can imagine the concern by State officials here when this theft was uncovered. But investigators would soon learn, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

"I really felt that was sensitive information," said Matthew Sansverie, The Inspector General for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Sansverie's agency is an independent watchdog overseeing the MTA. Once his investigators began to unravel the theft, they learned that missing keys and documents were nothing new. In fact, this same Metro-North employee has lost these items three times. Metro-North officials don't keep statistics on these types of losses. Why not? The railroad does not keep track of who is issued keys or these sensitive documents.

State officials admit this lapse in security leaves wide open the possibility that sensitive items could fall into the wrong hands. In fact, sources said the missing documents include a detailed description of highly sensitive areas at Grand Central Terminal, even evacuation plans showing the routes used to clear out passengers in an emergency.

When State investigators questioned Metro-North officials on how keys were issued, they were astonished to learn that in a six-month period last year the railroad handed out 16,000 universal door keys, while less than 1,000 employees were authorized to receive them.

"We don't think that management at the railroad put as high a value on these events that we would hope they would, especially in the current environment," Sansverie said.

Having complete access to a train leads to the possibility a terrorist could hijack it or even pack it with explosives and detonate it, while the train travels underneath the heart of Manhattan.

"Commuter trains are such an attractive target because of the large numbers of people on the trains at the same time. And most times they have to go through tunnels where there are contained spaces where the casualties and the fatalities are that much more exaggerated," said William Daly, a former FBI agent.

"This investigation suggested to us that the priorities should be looked at. While on-time performance is really important, it does not excuse taking care of the fundamentals like this," said Sansverie.

The MTA Inspector General said he has now opened a new investigation into the policies of the Long Island Railroad to see if they have a similar problem protecting keys and documents. He's also looking at NYC Transit. In a written response to the IG's report the MTA said they are taking steps to correct this security issue. They declined our requests for an on-camera interview.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

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