Metro board debates bag inspections

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:02 PM

Metro's random bag inspections prompted a fiery debate by the transit authority's newly composed board of directors Thursday, with civil liberties advocates squaring off against those who argued that security concerns are paramount.

The vigorous discussion by the board, which has four new members, contrasted sharply with the response of the old board, which mutely accepted the bag checks when Metro announced them in December.

The board, which was holding a customer service committee meeting, did not make any decision on whether the inspection policy should change. The Metro Riders' Advisory Council last month called for a halt to the searches.

Kathy Porter of Maryland and some other board members said Metro should determine what constitutes a reasonable amount of intrusion for customers.

"I'm a little bit leery of our sort of giving the general manager a carte blanche: If it's security related, do whatever you like," said Porter, who joined the board last month.

Tommy Wells, a new member from the District, said the Metro board must ensure it is "applying some sort of a test" as to whether security measures are reasonable for customers who have no choice but to use public transit.

Federal member Mortimer Downey, who was appointed to the board more than a year ago, took the opposite position, saying he supported the bag checks - and stronger measures - because Metro is an attractive target for terrorists.

"I don't want to find myself after an attack . . . in front of a congressional committee or a court [answering], 'Why did you not practice what had been suggested?' " he said. "I don't think we can just pretend there is not a risk."

Metro chief Richard Sarles on Thursday defended his decision to approve the checks. He said that he would try to keep the public informed about security measures but that it might not always be possible.

If there is an urgent security need, Sarles said, "by God I'm going to make that decision, and we are going to do it."

On Thursday, Sarles said his decision was based on several factors, including the recent arrests of two men in connection with bomb threats against Metro; heightened security concerns during the holiday season; and the fact that transit agencies in New York and Boston were conducting the bag checks.

"I wanted to be ahead of the game," Sarles said.

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