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US rail security deficient, say lawmakers, security expert

(The following story by Jeff Johnson appeared at CBSNews.com on March 12.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In light of terrorist attacks in Spain that killed nearly 200 people, two Republican members of Congress Friday urged Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to re-examine security measures involving the U.S. rail system. And a noted counter-terrorism expert gave U.S. passenger rail security a grade of "F."

U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) sent Ridge a letter, expressing their "sense of urgency about rail security."

They are specifically concerned about "the high discrepancy in funding that the U.S. allots toward air and port security versus funding that goes toward rail security."

According to the Fiscal Year 2004 Homeland Security Appropriations Conference Report, the division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for cargo and passenger rail security received $263 million. But none of that money was reportedly allocated to Amtrak or commuter rail services to improve security.

Of the $263 million, approximately 50 percent was designated for port security grants, $22 million for interstate trucking security, and $10 million for intercity bus security. In comparison, the Transportation Security Adinistration (TSA) received $3.7 billion for airport security.

"We find all of this to be disconcerting and believe that there needs to be better balance of homeland security funding allotments as well as the adoption of a strategic rail security plan for this country," Snowe and Castle wrote. "For too long, the federal government has made air and port security top priorities while funding for rail security has lagged far behind."

Neil Livingstone - CEO of Global Options LLC, which is self-described as a "private CIA, Defense Department, Justice Department, and FBI, all rolled into one" - said the members of Congress and the public are right to be concerned about America's rail security system. It's a system he said does not receive a passing grade.

"There is no security on passenger rail systems in the United States for all intents and purposes, so, you're really talking about an 'F' if you're going to compare it to, say, aviation security systems today," Livingstone told CNSNews.com .

While there are some electronic surveillance measures in larger rail passenger terminals and larger commuter railroads and Amtrak do have their own police forces, Livingstone said much more could be done.

"No one walks through a metal detector, there are no preventive measures [such as] bomb blankets or bomb boxes on board," Livingstone explained. "There's no screening of passengers or their hand luggage or other luggage."

Livingstone said it only makes sense that terrorists would transfer their attention from newly "hardened" targets, such as airports, to "softer" targets, like passenger railroads.

"The fact that we have upgraded or up-scaled security at all of our airports has probably led terrorists to focus on other forms of transportation," Livingstone said, "where we don't really have the security systems put in place that we have since 9/11 at the airports."

While it is unrealistic to expect commuter railroad passengers to undergo the same level of scrutiny imposed on airline passengers, Livingstone said it is possible to do more.

"You need to have more physical law enforcement presence in metropolitan rail stations, looking for suspect parcels," Livingston explained. "You need to initiate a program where passengers are educated to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, suspicious parcels left behind or that they see on a seat in a rail system."

Ultimately, however, Livingstone said terrorist threats against passenger rail systems must be stopped before the terrorists reach the terminal.

"The fact of the matter is that there is no way of simply setting up defensive measures that are going to protect us," Livingstone said. "We're going to have to go after the terrorist with even more renewed vigor and we're going to have to essentially kill or neutralize as many terrorists as possible and the countries that support them.

"We've got a long way to go at the present time," Livingstone concluded.

Monday, March 15, 2004

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