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Opinion: U.S. fears drug cartels, terrorists using rail and bus systems

(The following column by Michael Webster appeared on the Border Fire Report website on March 12.)

According to an Amtrak press release this week they will start randomly screening passengers' and there Michael Webstercarry-on bags in a new security push that includes officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains. But is it enough to protect the American people? Security annalist Ron Adler says, “no this is but a drop in the bucket for what’s really needed to secure our rail and bus systems”.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Congress recognized the threat to transportation security – including rail and mass transit – and passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which created TSA. ATSA provided specific security mandates for aviation, such as the deployment of federal passenger screeners at airports across the nation and the screening of every piece of checked baggage for explosives by December 31, 2002.

Even worse ATSA did not provide specific guidance for rail and mass transit security. Instead to date the federal government still has not stepped up to the plate to move forward with critical plans to secure our nation’s rail and mass transit systems. Instead, the Administration continues to approach the problem with piecemeal solutions instead of developing an overarching strategy that could be used to guide initiatives. Similarly, the Administration also has failed to devote significant resources and manpower to rail and mass transit research and development. Many Americans think expensive technology will play an important role in deterring and preventing future chemical, biological, or radiological attacks.

While commercial aviation remains a possible target, federal, state and local law enforcement believe that international drug dealers, gangs and terrorists have turned their attention to other modes of transportation. U.S. Rail and other mass transit are being used as part of the global network of drug traffickers, these routes are being used by Mexican drug cartels, smuggling contraband into American cities. And this same lack of security is providing terrorist the opportunities to do great harm to Americans by taking advantage of the vulnerable U.S. surface transportation.

Americans watched in shock as terrorists struck at the heart of our ally’s mass transit system, killing fifty-two people and injuring more than 700 others. In London that July attack started at the heart of rush hour, with three bombs exploding at 8:50 am on London’s Underground subway system. Less than an hour later at 9:47 am, as London’s subway system was completely shut down, an explosion tore through the back of the number 30 Hackney to Marble Arch bus. Those struck down were ordinary people, not that different from many Americans, who were going about their usual routine; commuting to work, school, or tourist sites.

Editor's note: at http://www.lagunajournal.com is an online intelligence news service from the creator of the News letter "For Your Eyes Only" – written by Investigative Reporter Michael Webster, who has been developing sources around the world for the last 35 years.

After the bombings, Congress called on the Administration to move quickly to reinforce our nation’s rail and mass transit systems to prevent such an attack from happening on American soil. Yet, to date the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) have failed to produce a comprehensive strategy to secure America’s rail and mass transit system. In addition, the Department and TSA continue to focus1 almost exclusively on aviation security, spending, on average, $10 per air passenger as compared to only one penny per rail/mass transit security passenger.

The Department has made excuses for this failure by stating that mass transit security is a shared responsibility between federal, state, and local partners, and that the federal government has provided significant support for the past three years. This “partnership,” however, has long left state and local governments paying the check without really knowing what they are paying for and why.

Still other reasons that America’s rail and mass transit systems are such inviting targets to terrorists is because they are vast, open, and easily accessible. There are over 300,000 miles of freight rail lines and over 10,000 miles of commuter and urban rail system lines in the country. Each weekday, 11.3 million passengers in 35 metropolitan areas and 22 states use some form of rail and mass transit. Americans also use public buses to get to work, to see friends, and to go shopping. In 2005, Americans rode public buses more than 6 billion times.

On average, more than 306,000 customers use the San Francisco BART System on a daily basis. The Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) 1,190 rapid transit cars operate over seven routes and 222 miles of track. CTA trains provide about 500,000 customer trips each day and serve 144 stations. On a typical weekday in Washington, DC, 1,538 trains operate over 206 miles of track. During the month of April 2006, the average weekday rider ship in Washington, DC was 739, 525. As Karl Wycoff, the head of the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Antiterrorism Unit stated in a recent speech, “Public transport networks are the arteries of contemporary societies, without which modern urban life is impossible.”

In a recent survey, the Rail Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) noted a disturbing lack of security along the railroad tracks and in rail yards across the country. Forty-two percent of the IBT employees surveyed stated that railroad companies have not increased the frequency of inspections at critical infrastructure points (i.e bridges, tunnels) designed to detect and prevent acts of terrorism. Sixty-three percent reported that their train or equipment was delayed or left unattended for an extended period of time prior to or during their tour of duty. Fifty-five percent of this time, hazardous materials were on board. When asked whether there was visible rail police presence in the rail yard on the day that they were surveyed, ninety-six percent said “no”.

To correct these deficiencies, GAO recommended that the Department establish a timeline for completing the framework for analyzing rail and mass transit risks and ensure that the risk assessment methodologies used by all agencies are consistent with this framework.

GAO has recommended that TSA establish a plan for completing its methodology for conducting risk assessments and evaluate whether the risk assessments methodology used by Grants and Training should be leveraged to facilitate the completion of risk assessments for all rail and mass transit systems. The prior system of duplication of effort was costing taxpayer dollars and wasting valuable resources while the nation’s rail and mass transit systems remained at risk.

Another problem for our government has been information sharing it has long been a challenge within the current Administration. The 9-11 Commission Report released in 2004 highlighted this problem. Subsequently, the 9/11 Discourse Project, a non-profit organization led by the members of the 9/11 Commission, recognized in 2005 the continuing flaws and gave the Department a “D” for its efforts.
According to the group, “there remain many complaints about the lack of information sharing between federal authorities and state and local level officials.”

The Department’s partnership failures extend beyond its ability to get along with state and local governments to the private sector and frontline employees of the rail and mass transit systems. The Administration has not actively engaged these employees. These men and women are the eyes and ears of these systems yet the Administration has not consulted with them on its initiatives. Nor, has the Administration ensured that they are trained to respond to a terrorist event.

Nor has the federal government stepped up to the plate to move forward with critical plans to secure our nation’s rail and mass transit systems. Instead, the Administration continues to approach the problem with piecemeal solutions instead of developing an overarching strategy that could be used to guide initiatives. Similarly, the Administration also has failed to devote significant resources and manpower to rail and mass transit research and development.

As the London bombings anniversary approach, it is clear that the Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and TSA must do more to secure our nation’s rail and mass transit systems.

Terrorists must simply not be given the opportunity to attack these systems.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

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