By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 11:45 PM
The Washington Metro system is an open and vulnerable target for terrorists and must rely largely upon vigilant riders and employees to prevent potential attacks, Metro officials said Wednesday.
In the aftermath of the arrest of terrorist suspect Farooque Ahmed and the revelation of an alleged plot to bomb multiple Metro stations, officials underscored the need for customers to remain alert to any suspicious activity, stressing that a single observation could prove essential.
"Transit is an open environment, and so we don't have a lot of technologies that one can use," said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael A. Taborn. "We depend heavily on employee training, public awareness and emergency preparedness to get the message out."
The alleged plan to stage a mass-casualty attack on Metro represents the most significant terrorist threat against the system, according to Jim Graham, a member and past chairman of Metro's board of directors. "This is exceptional," he said.
The transit agency, with the nation's second-busiest rail system, transports more than 1 million people on an average weekday and must strike a careful balance between providing unfettered mobility and ensuring protection against terrorist acts.
"Metro, like any other transit system in the world, has a high level of vulnerability," said Graham, who is also a D.C. council member (D-Ward 1). "There is no getting around that. You do your best with dogs, police and cameras."
Graham said Metro's past experiments with searches of individual customers and bags - such as during the second inauguration of George W. Bush - had proved laborious and caused huge crowds to form. That in itself is a security risk, he said.
"The entire system was jammed. People just could not move, because of the necessary slow pace of checking everybody," Graham said.
Random searches of individuals and their possessions on Metro may be necessary in the future, Taborn and Graham said.
"That possibility always exists," Taborn said. The searches could be similar to those conducted in airports, where bags are swabbed for traces of explosives, but would not be "invasive," he said.
Metro Transit Police have not increased security as a result of the alleged plot, Taborn said, but are continuing normal patrols conducted by a 20-member anti-terrorism team that targets portions of the rail and bus system. The team, created in 2009, conducts random security sweeps and is trained to spot the behavior of people who could be conducting surveillance or making other preparations for a terrorist attack on the system.
Metro also has chemical, biological and radiological detection equipment installed in the subway system. In addition, five officers work with bomb-sniffing dogs to search for explosives. On Thursday, the Metro board is scheduled to discuss a plan to extend and expand that program with at least three new teams funded by a federal grant.
Earlier this year, Metro launched an initiative known as Blue TIDE (for Terrorism Identification and Deterrence Effort), in which hundreds of officers from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have coordinated responses to simulated attacks, such as explosions on trains and buses.
A public awareness campaign with the slogan "See it? Say it!" reminds riders to report suspicious activity. On Wednesday, Taborn stressed that such alertness could prove critical in stopping attacks. The FBI arrest of Ahmed on Wednesday "reinforces the need for continued vigilance by Metro and its customers," Taborn said.
Many Metrorail passengers said news of the alleged plot would not deter them from using the rail service. They said they would just be more vigilant.
David Feit, 28, of Germantown said it's part of living in the Washington area.
"As far as terrorism goes, it doesn't even cross my mind," Feit said after he got off a Red Line train in Rockville. "We live in the D.C. metro area. If there's going to be terrorism, then it would be here. But that's out of my control unless I see something, and then I'd report it. Why waste anxiety on it?"
Edith Sowe, 35, of Silver Spring said she feels "relatively safe," especially when she sees Metro Transit Police on her train or at Union Station about once a week.
"At least it gives you the impression that they're trying to be proactive and aren't waiting for something bad to happen before they respond," Sowe said as she waited at the Rockville Station. "I think the main thing is people need to be alert and pay attention because Metro can only do so much."
Government consultant Troy Gascoyne, 44, said: "You gotta go to work. You gotta keep living life."
Gascoyne, a Leesburg resident who occasionally takes Metro for meetings in Washington, said the alleged plot "makes you a little nervous. I'll just try to be a little more aware."
Julia Li, who had just gotten off a train at West Falls Church Station on Wednesday and was heading home from work, said she was not surprised by the news about the alleged plot, given the global war on terrorism. But she said she remains alert while riding the train. Li, 25, who lives in Falls Church, said she keeps her distance from riders carrying large bags.
"You don't know what might be in there," she said.
Staff writers Kafia A. Hosh and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.