By Sari Horwitz and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 22, 2005
Washington's Metro transit agency tightened security yesterday in response to the latest London bombings, increasing patrols and planning a sweep of the subway system last night to search for explosives and weapons.
But Washington's response was not as extensive as that of New York, which last night became the first U.S. city to begin randomly checking bags at its subways, commuter railways and buses.
Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson said Metro officials are studying the idea of bag searches and will see how the practice works in New York, where the city's buses and subways carry 7 million passengers a day -- more than half the nation's daily mass-transit riders.
Hanson would not discuss details of Metro's search of its 106-mile subway system, which was scheduled to begin after midnight. But she said that all maintenance work was canceled and that contractors or other outsiders would not be allowed to enter Metro stations. The last time Metro conducted such a search was immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
"It's going to be a total lockdown," Hanson said. "We want to make a secure environment. . . . The incidents in London, I think, have really made people realize the vulnerability of public transportation. Here you had a city on high alert. They've just had a terrible incident two weeks ago. They were on high alert, and whatever's happened has happened today."
Two weeks after massive explosions inside London's Underground killed 56 people, four smaller explosions yesterday shut the city's entire transit system.
Metro's sweep is the latest step in an ongoing effort to assess and tighten security in the mass-transit system of the nation's capital. Outside law enforcement agencies said they would help the transit police by offering teams of officers from across the region, and police are altering their shifts to try to confuse potential terrorists.
Federal agents and police officials urged citizens to look for suspicious behavior on the area's Metro and rail systems -- and if necessary, to take action themselves.
"If there's no police officer around and someone is sitting there, sweating and riffling through a backpack, someone needs to speak up loudly. They need to say, 'You're making me nervous,' " said James M. Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Washington office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Citizens have got to look up, they've got to notice and they've got to be alert."
Experts reiterated yesterday that no technology exists to detect someone carrying explosives onto a subway or a bus. ATF officials said the best tool they have for finding explosives in a backpack or on a person is a bomb-sniffing dog that has been trained to detect some 19,000 types of explosives.
"I heard someone on the radio suggest that we install a device in the Metro that sniffs a bomb," said FBI Assistant Director Michael A. Mason, who heads the Washington Field Office. "Does he think we haven't thought of that?"
Private companies are working to develop technology to help law enforcement officers detect explosives, Mason said. "But it doesn't exist today," he said. "There's no simple solution."
Officials in other federal and local government agencies agreed with Mason, saying that the technology being used in airports nationwide would not work in mass-transit systems, on which the high volume of riders across the nation and trains being spaced just minutes apart make screenings too difficult.
Mason said federal agencies and local police departments across the Washington area are trying to develop a long-term security strategy for mass transit, instead of reacting with tactical operations that they can sustain for only a week at a time.
In New York, hundreds of police officers stationed throughout the city's mass-transit system began randomly searching backpacks and packages. The plan announced yesterday placed officers at subway turnstiles and bus stops.
"You can say no, but you will be denied entry," said Paul Browne, spokesman for the New York Police Department. "You will not be allowed to enter the system."
The department has considered proposals for bag searches at various times since the 2001 attacks, but the decision to begin the program came after London's second attack.
In response to the London bombings, U.S. Capitol Police have begun randomly searching the bags of people who are anywhere on the Capitol grounds.
For many of Washington's Metro riders, news of the latest bombings seemed to spark a sense of the inevitable, more than feelings of fear or nervousness. A Metro spokeswoman said the number of riders was typical for a weekday.
At Metro Center yesterday afternoon, James Washington, 54, of Brookland changed trains for a trip to Silver Spring. He had heard about the bombings, but the news did not change his plans.
"There's not much you can do," Washington said. "These people have shown that even if you prepare for it, if they want to do something they're going to do it. It doesn't matter if you have all kinds of security or not. You have to keep going."
Nearby, Chad Pipan and his wife, Julie, of Modesto, Calif., said that they had just heard the news over lunch and that they hesitated only momentarily before getting on another train to head to Arlington National Cemetery.
"If they want to bomb something, there's not really something we can do about it," Chad Pipan said.
Staff writers Maria Glod, Sandhya Somashekhar and Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report. Garcia reported from New York.