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Transit security: CTA says it's on slow train for terrorist alerts

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on March 24, 2009.)

CHICAGO — The Chicago Transit Authority is waiting for the necessary federal approvals to receive highly sensitive security information, including tips about potential acts of terrorism being planned against elevated or subway trains, officials told a congressional hearing Monday.

Every major U.S. transit agency should have at least two senior officials with top clearance who can receive classified briefings from the FBI and other intelligence agencies, but the CTA lacks the credentials to be included in high-level federal terror alerts, Daniel Hall, CTA vice president of security, told a homeland security working group convened by U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.).

"There is a lengthy process of receiving (Transportation Security Administration) clearance in order to get into the realm of classified materials to help protect the transit system," said Hall, adding that he obtained such a clearance when he was in the military. "It takes a year or two years just to get a clearance."

The transit agency would prefer that five or six officials receive the top security clearance, said Amy Kovalan, CTA vice president of safety.

Officials from the CTA and Metra suggested that the Chicago area's commuter, elevated and subway trains are vulnerable to a terrorist attack because the federal government is holding back intelligence as well as funding needed to upgrade security technology.

Much of the communications equipment at the CTA is not capable of being used to radio security officials at Metra in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency, transit officials testified at the hearing.

Roskam called the meeting to uncover problems and to get the federal government more involved in urban rail security.

The transit officials blamed the security loopholes on the lack of federal funding and bureaucratic red tape.

"We want to create and reinforce partnerships," said Sharon Austin, Metra's senior director of system security. But "cumbersome rules in applying for grants" make it difficult, she said.

Transit officials said strategies to prevent crime on the rail system are compatible with counter-terrorism efforts.

"If graffiti vandals can get into your rail yard and put graffiti on the trains, then the terrorist can get in and put a bomb on them," Hall said. "It's the same thing."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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