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Homeland Security to announce rail security steps

(The following story by Mimi Hall appeared on the USA Today website on March 22.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is expected to announce several new rail-security programs today to address a growing demand for security upgrades following the terrorist bombings in Madrid this month. But U.S. officials say most of their money and attention will remain on aviation security and bioterrorism.

"It's very important that we do not simply react to an incident that happens anywhere in the world," says Asa Hutchinson, the border and transportation security chief at the Department of Homeland Security. In deciding how and where to spend taxpayers' money, he says, "you have to measure the threat, the damage, the harm to the economy and to society."

Administration officials said Sunday that Ridge will announce several small-scale efforts to tighten rail security. The department will create a "rapid-deployment mass transit program," including teams with explosives-sniffing dogs that can be sent to vulnerable rail systems and stations when intelligence suggests a threat. The department also will speed up plans for a pilot program to test whether explosives-detection technology can be used to screen rail passengers and bags. The technology will be tested at a commuter rail station.

But despite the Madrid bombings, which killed 202 people and wounded more than 1,800, officials say they must focus on the kinds of attacks that could do the most damage.

A bioterrorism attack that could kill hundreds of thousands of people with smallpox or another deadly agent is by far the most serious concern facing Homeland Security officials. Even without solid intelligence indicating terrorists might launch such an attack, the government has spent nearly $11 billion since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to develop vaccines and other countermeasures. The goal is to protect against deadly pathogens such as botulinum, plague and Ebola because the consequences could be staggering.

The top transportation security concern remains airplanes. Intelligence agents say they have evidence that al-Qaeda is still focused on using jets to launch attacks. Officials fear terrorists will again try to use airplanes as missiles by flying them into buildings, national symbols or, worse, nuclear or chemical plants.

That's why the government has spent more than $12 billion on aviation security since 2001 and only a fraction of that on train security. It's why 97% of the budget for the Transportation Security Administration is set aside for aviation security. It's why President Bush's proposed 2004 budget seeks $65 million for rail security and $4.5 billion for airline security.

Few questioned those numbers — until Madrid. Now, members of Congress from both political parties are complaining that the administration isn't doing enough.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., sent a letter to Ridge last week demanding information about his plans to secure the rails. "After the devastating terrorist attack in Madrid, I want to know that we are exhausting all possible security options to keep these thugs from attacking mass transit systems in America," Foley wrote.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said, "More security funding should be the first priority, not the third rail, in our efforts to make our public transportation systems safe for passengers."

But Hutchinson told the House Homeland Security Committee last week that the administration has no plans to seek more money for train security. Officials say there are several reasons why calls for massive rail-security upgrades don't make sense:

-- Intelligence agencies say they have no specific information that terrorists plan to target the rail system in the USA but plenty that indicates al-Qaeda continues to have a strong interest in using planes.

-- It would be impossible to secure such a vast and open system. The government could spend billions of dollars to put in metal detectors and bomb-detection equipment at major stations in big cities. But passengers board trains at lots of smaller stops, some that are little more than a platform next to a parking lot.

-- An attack on a train or subway could kill hundreds and inflict serious psychological damage on commuters and others who ride trains. But the attacks wouldn't be catastrophic, either in the number of people killed or the economic impact.

"An aircraft can be used as a weapon," Hutchinson said. "A train cannot be hurled through the air in the same fashion."

A high-level FBI official with knowledge of counterterrorism said the FBI wants to protect against all attacks. But the top priority is to thwart catastrophic, 9/11-style attacks.

Hutchinson said that the government must be careful about how it shifts money around. Spending more on train security, he said, would mean spending less elsewhere: "Whenever you shift resources, you've got to be careful that you don't leave something (else) in a vulnerable state."

Monday, March 22, 2004

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