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Amtrak conducts major East Coast security search

(The following story by Kytja Weir appeared on the Washington Examiner website on September 10, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amtrak, with other transit agencies and dozens of law enforcement groups, conducted a broad security crackdown Wednesday that included random bag searches at train stations along the East Coast including Union Station.

Amtrak conducted the major show of force at train stations in Virginia, Maryland and as far as Vermont just two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But Amtrak's deputy for special operations Ed Phillips said, "There is no direct tie to 9/11, nor was there any specific threat."

Instead it was the latest Amtrak operation to prevent terrorism on transit systems such as those that rocked Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005, he said. Amtrak began the program in February 2008 and has conducted smaller-scale searches at stations along the East Coast.

"We do these operations all the time, we just don't do them at this scale," Phillips said.

The crackdowns involved testing bags of say, every 15th person, then swabbing them with a pad they place into a special sensor that can detect explosives or drugs. The scan takes a few seconds. They open bags with positive tests.

Amtrak had no reports of anything amiss and no delays for riders Wednesday afternoon. But Phillips said that was not unusual. In the past year and a half, he said, officials received positive tests about four or five times, with none of them yielding bombs. Usually the bags had photographic equipment, he said. And any arrests usually had to do with drugs found during the operations.

Other transit agencies in Boston, New York and New Jersey have conducted similar security searches in recent years.

But Metro police didn't search any bags themselves even though they helped with Wednesday's operation.

Nearly a year after Metro announced it would conduct random searches of riders' shopping bags, backpacks and purses, it has yet to begin any of the controversial searches.

"It's still a policy," Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said. "It is something we can implement when we need to, when we perceive a need."

She said the agency has not begun the random searching program yet because "circumstances have not materialized that would warrant this security initiative."

On Oct. 27, Metro had announced plans to begin random bag searches when the agency had a specific threat or security concern. The policy was met with outrage from some riders and advocacy groups.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

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