Code Orange

U.S. Increases Threat Level for Mass Transit

Members of the New York Police Department's emergency services unit patrol at Grand Central Terminal after terrorist bombs went off on subway trains and a bus in London. The Department of Homeland Security immediately increased protective measures for mass transit.
Members of the New York Police Department's emergency services unit patrol at Grand Central Terminal after terrorist bombs went off on subway trains and a bus in London. The Department of Homeland Security immediately increased protective measures for mass transit. (By Chip East -- Reuters)

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By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 8, 2005

Security experts and members of Congress urged the Bush administration yesterday to step up long-term security efforts to protect the nation's mass-transit riders after the deadly explosions that struck London's subway and bus system.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff raised the threat level to orange, or high risk, for mass transit yesterday, enacting a series of short-term protective measures, including more police officers, extra barriers, increased video surveillance, and added inspections of trash bins and other potential hiding places for bombs. In addition, he urged transit authorities to increase inspections of passengers and their bags in some areas.

There is no "specific, credible evidence of an attack that's imminent in the United States," Chertoff said in Washington yesterday. "We feel that, at least in the short term, we should raise the level here because, obviously, we're concerned about the possibility of a copycat attack."

At the same time, Chertoff urged Americans to continue using public transportation. "This is not an occasion for undue anxiety," he said.

Since terrorists bombed trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, the Transportation Security Administration has taken some steps to improve security for mass transit, but its budget for airline security dwarfs that of rail, subway and other ground efforts. Officials have conducted vulnerability assessments of rail systems, hired rail inspectors and run tests of explosives-detection technology at some locations -- such as the Metro station in New Carrollton. But security experts said the efforts have resulted in few substantive improvements.

"Madrid was a big wake-up call to us, yet we did relatively little," said Clark Kent Ervin, the former Homeland Security inspector general who is now at the Aspen Institute. "It really seems to me a matter of time before it happens in our country -- in part because it's so easy to do."

From 1998 to 2003, 181 attacks have occurred on transit systems worldwide, resulting in 431 deaths and several thousand injuries, according to Rand Corp., an independent research group. Most were carried out by separatist groups.

The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies did not detect any signs of an attack before the bombings in London yesterday, but U.S. authorities are reviewing recent reports to make sure no clues were missed, officials said.

A senior administration official acknowledged the difficulty U.S. authorities have had in trying to figure out how to protect the public transportation systems against attacks. He said that because of the sharp focus on aviation security, terrorists are looking for new targets. "Public transportation remains very vulnerable. We've known this -- we knew this even before Madrid," said the official, who works on U.S. defense policy.

Experts said transit systems, particularly subways that move rapidly through multiple stations, remain attractive to terrorists because it is easy for them to plant explosives and escape.

"The notion that you can, with 100 percent certainty, prevent this kind of incident from happening in the U.S. or anywhere else is absurd," said K. Jack Riley, a Rand Corp. transportation security expert. "The unsatisfying answer to the public in how to prevent these incidents stretches back to having a comprehensive strategy to reduce the appeal to this radical ideology and efforts to disrupt and demobilize" terrorist groups, he said.

The move to code orange marks the first time the terrorist threat level has been raised since August 2004, when Homeland Security officials increased the level for financial sectors in three northeastern cities because of evidence that terrorist operatives had cased buildings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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