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Amtrak expands random security sweeps

(The following story by Mimi Hall appeared on the USA Today website on July 11.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rail passengers from coast to coast will be subject to random security checks and may have their luggage scanned for explosives beginning this fall, according to Amtrak officials.

Six months after it set up counterterrorism teams to screen passengers at busy East Coast stations, the rail company is expanding its security sweeps across the country with a new team of special agents in California.

"We want to show we're playing defense" against would-be terrorists, says Amtrak security chief Bill Rooney. "Our focus is counterterrorism. We're thinking along the lines of a Madrid or a London."

Rail bombings in those cities in 2004 and 2005 together killed hundreds of passengers and sparked fears in the United States that terrorists will strike the nation's largely unsecured rail system.

In February, Amtrak announced it would assemble highly trained mobile security teams to start screening passengers and their carry-on bags as part of a new push to deter anyone intent on bombing a train.

Those searches are being done along routes from Washington, D.C., to Boston; Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa.; and in Chicago. The new West Coast routes will have agents checking passengers from San Diego to San Jose. More teams may be added within the next year.

How the sweeps are conducted: Teams of counterterrorism agents swoop into rail stations unannounced and randomly select passengers to place their bags on a table to be swabbed for explosives before they board their train. If there's a positive readout, the passengers' bags are opened and searched by hand.

While that's going on, undercover agents dressed as everything from businessmen to homeless people to hip-hoppers scan the crowds in waiting areas, on platforms and in train cars.

Other agents decked in full combat gear and carrying semiautomatic guns patrol the platforms. Some work with bomb-sniffing dogs.

John Reinstein, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Boston chapter, says that although he generally opposes security searches, he doesn't see a major problem with Amtrak's strategy "if it's done in a way that doesn't involve significant intrusion and is genuinely random."

Citing security reasons, officials won't say how passengers are selected. The checks are voluntary, but anyone who declines will be given a refund and required to leave the station.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke says there is nothing to suggest an imminent threat to the country or to mass transit.

Security experts and members of Congress applaud the effort, though some criticize Amtrak for taking too long to get it set up.

"Let me congratulate them for being aware" of the threat, says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security. "(But) this has to be the new standard for Amtrak."

Friday, July 11, 2008

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