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U.S. struggles to stabilize security holes

(Gannett News Service circulated the following on September 10.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. The federal government has made it a lot safer for Americans to fly since Sept. 11, 2001, but lawmakers have a lot more to do before people can feel secure about boarding trains or taking subways.

The government has spent $20 billion on aviation security in the five years since the terrorist attacks in New York and suburban Washington. And aviation remains vulnerable as shown by a plot British authorities foiled in August to blow up U.S.-bound planes using liquid explosives.

But terrorists have targeted other modes of travel as well -- trains in Europe and India -- and it's probably only a matter of time before they carry out similar attacks in this country. Transit systems carry 16 times as many people as airlines do every day. An attack on a major port could strike a serious economic blow and disrupt global trade for months, experts say.

Yet, they add, the federal government has done little more than provide grants -- $400 million for mass transit, $700 million to ports -- to improve security on the nation's 37 large transit systems and 361 sea and river ports since Sept. 11.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of a House aviation subcommittee, defends the focus on aviation.

"We have to look at where our threat is. It is almost impossible to protect every bus stop, every transit system and every passenger rail system," Mica said.

If terrorists bomb subways as they did in London last year, or commuter trains like in Madrid, Spain, in 2004 and Mumbai, India, this summer, "the damage will be somewhat limited," he said. "The loss of one life is serious, but they're interested in spectacular incidents."

Critics like former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said lawmakers have yet to set meaningful priorities and back them up with money.

"You've got a number of possible threats. You've got an unlimited number of targets," Hamilton told Gannett News Service and USA TODAY recently. "We've been talking about making hard choices for three or four years now. I don't know if we've made very many yet."

Securing the skies

Brian Jenkins, a transportation security expert at San Jose State University and the Rand Corp., said federalizing checkpoint security soon after Sept. 11 was a smart move. The 45,000 federal screeners are better-paid and trained than private-sector employees, he said.

The Department of Homeland Security also has invested billions in technology, including 1,900 sophisticated metal detectors, 1,200 explosive detection devices and 7,400 baggage-screening machines.

Stephen Luckey, an aviation-security consultant, said Congress was correct in ordering cockpit doors reinforced and locked during flights. In addition to armed federal marshals on many flights, thousands of weapons-trained pilots have been carrying guns.

But there still are large holes in the aviation security blanket.

Tom Kean, a former governor of New Jersey and 9/11 Commission chairman, said authorities have yet to combine various "watch lists" into one.

"The fact that there are still bad guys listed in certain agencies that are not on a watch list -- they can presumably walk onto a plane -- is nuts five years after 9/11," he said.

The government has known since the mid-1990s that al-Qaida sought to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on baggage, but the authorities did little until the London plot to safeguard against it, said R. William Johnstone, a 9/11 Commission staff member and author of a new book, "9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security."

In addition, checked baggage is poorly screened for explosives, Mica said.

Some of his other criticisms: Trained dogs are better at detecting explosives in baggage than expensive machines, federal screeners aren't uniformly good at their jobs, and the government hasn't made headway in preparing for another terrorist tactic -- shooting down planes by firing shoulder-fired missiles from the ground.

More passengers, less funding

Americans take 32 million trips every day on buses, subways, light rail and commuter trains compared with 2 million trips on planes. Yet, aviation has received 20 times more security money than mass transit.

To make up for the shortfall, transit agencies and state and local governments have scrambled to find about $2 billion, said Greg Hull of the American Public Transportation Association. An estimated $6 billion more is needed, he said.

Authorities are deploying K-9 units, training employees to watch for suspicious riders and buying radios and closed-circuit television systems, said Polly Hanson, who heads the District of Columbia's transit police force. Some systems are also investing in chemical and biological detection devices and transit officials everywhere are enlisting the public's help to thwart terrorists by asking riders to report unattended bags and suspicious activity.

Federal authorities also have tested bomb-detecting technology at an Amtrak station outside Washington and a subway station used by 15,000 New Jersey commuters to enter Manhattan.

Safeguarding mass transit is a lot more difficult than protecting air passengers because subway, train and bus systems must be accessible and riders should be able to hop on and off quickly, Jenkins said.

Asking riders to remove their shoes or walk through metal detectors is impractical. And paying for security is another issue. Airlines can add a few dollars to a ticket that already costs hundreds of dollars, but when officials increase bus or subway fares "by 25 cents ... there are howls of pain," Jenkins said.

U.S. authorities should improve intelligence gathering and beef up the police presence in high-risk systems like subways in New York and Washington, he said. In July, U.S. and Lebanese authorities credited intelligence for interrupting a plot to blow up the rail tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and New York.

Port-security progress

When a terrorist bomb ripped a 40- by-60-foot hole in the USS Cole in October 2000 in Yemen -- killing 17 sailors -- it became clear that al-Qaida could go after shipping. But little was done to boost maritime security until after Sept. 11, critics say.

A 2002 maritime-security law made the U.S. Coast Guard responsible for port security and required ports to adopt security plans. While it has provided millions for security upgrades, the Coast Guard has said it would need $7 billion for security alone.

The government has given out $700 million in grants, although the American Association of Port Authorities estimates $3.8 billion is needed for fences, lights, cameras, personnel and other security measures nationwide.

Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said earlier this year that the government has studied the security plans filed by all ports and is reviewing security procedures at nuclear plants that are near the nation's ports. Port workers are now required to carry biometric identification cards, and the Customs and Border Patrol screens high-risk containers bound for the United States. Technology being deployed includes hand-held radiation monitors and giant X-ray machines overseas.

But critics argued it wasn't enough.

'A very possible nightmare'

Some lawmakers are pushing for all cargo containers to be screened before they arrive in this country; 5 percent of the 11 million containers U.S. ports receive each year are inspected.

Kean raised the possibility of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden hiding a nuclear device in a U.S.-bound shipping container and exploding it at a major port. Given that uranium stockpiles aren't secure in many parts of the world, "what scares me the most is the idea of a terrorist with a nuclear device," Kean said.

"It's what bin Laden wants to do, what he said he wants to do. He's written that he wants to do that, he's tried to get nuclear weapons for 15 years," he said. "That's my nightmare, unfortunately a very possible nightmare."

Tuesday marks 6 years since America was attacked by terrorists.

Monday, September 10, 2007

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