Baggage checks: Anti-terrorism teams begin searches to prevent attacks

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Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Ann Scott Tyson was online Friday, Dec. 17, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the decision by Metro transit teams in the nation's capital to start random inspections of passengers' bags and packages by anti-terrorism teams in order to protect the rail and bus system from attack.

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Ann Scott Tyson: Thanks for joining the chat. I am here to answer questions about the decision by Metro to carry out random bag checks of customers before they enter the rail and bus system.

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21771: Didn't Metro say they were going to start random bag checks about 18 to 24 months ago? I remember they did, although I never saw anyone checking bags -- and I ride Metro five days per week. Now they're announcing it again? Will they do it this time?

Ann Scott Tyson: You are correct, just over two years ago in October 2008 Metro said it would carry out the checks, but never executed it. I understand that the checks at that time were to be triggered by an elevated threat level, and because the threat level did not go up, they never started the checks, but the policy was in place.

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Fairfax, Va.: True or False: These bag checks may stop an attack from occurring because of the deterrent effect, but will not actually ever catch anyone. Also, how much of this is just security theater?

Ann Scott Tyson: Yes, Metro police believe that the checks will serve as a deterrent, but they also acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that a person carrying an explosive device would place themselves in a position to undergo an inspection, and then agree to submit to inspection.

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Charlottesville, VA: Unless the bag inspector can produce a warrant specifying the person and place to be searched, and what items he/she is seeking, I will respectfully decline permission to search my belongings. Submitting to these random checks simply empowers those who wish to eviscerate our Fourth Amendment rights to be protected against unreasonable searches.

Ann Scott Tyson: Metro police made it clear that people have the right to refuse to have their bags screened, and noted that screening does not mean opening the bags, unless explosives are detected.

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Arlington, Va: How would this work at an entrance such as eighteenth street of Farragut West where there are waves upon waves of people coming in at rush hour?

Ann Scott Tyson: Metro police have not specified exactly where or when they would conduct the searches, and have also stated that they want to avoid clogging up the mass transit system, but of course how they will execute this has yet to be seen...

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Mayberry, MD: The stolen phones and beat up passengers concern me more on Metro - there is nothing to prevent a terrorist from just going to a different station if a bag check is being done. Why aren't the resources being used to combat the real Metro problems?

Ann Scott Tyson: It's certainly a valid argument to make. Metro police say they hope to deter a terrorist attack, and that the checks are just one of several tools. However your observation makes that a potential attacker could avoid any checks by switching stations makes sense.

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Rockville MC: Do we have any evidence that these checks will do any good?

Ann Scott Tyson: Good question, and a difficult one to answer -- if something does not happen because of the checks, how do you find that out? Other transit systems do conduct the checks, however, and it would be worth checking with them to see what impact they have had.

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D.C.: How will Metro decide at which stations it will search bags?

Ann Scott Tyson: Metro police do not want to reveal how they will make such decisions in order to increase the uncertainty that anyone considering an attack would face - but one could speculate they would target the same stations that an attacker would target - busy stations, stations that are easier to gain access to and attack, etc.

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Bowie, Md.: This is ridiculous! Metro exists to cater to harried, hassled commuters who are already paying too much money to ride and park within the system. Now one out of every three of us is going to get pulled aside and hand- searched? Are they going to do TSA-style pat- downs, too? If not, what's the point of looking in the bag? Can we carry more than 3.5 oz of liquid on the train? How much revenue is Metro going to lose over this? I sense another big-time PR black eye heading for us at the speed of a... wait for it... subway train.

Ann Scott Tyson: Many riders have expressed similar frustration.

One clarification, however, Metro police say they will not open bags unless the explosives screening comes back positive.

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Baltimore, Md.: If they don't do inspections at every station, what's the point? Bad guys will just use another station. Many are within walking distance of each other.

Ann Scott Tyson: Yes, that is entirely possible. Metro police chief Taborn said the goal is to "throw the bad person off."

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Washington, D.C.: Did the inspections actually take place today? I can't find any evidence of it from twitter, or elsewhere.

Ann Scott Tyson: No inspections took place today as far as we know.

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20782: WhenI commute via Metro I see some people who have suitcases. There are plenty of people with multiple bags -- a gym bag, a purse, a briefcase,etc.

If a person has more than one bag will Metro search all of them?

Ann Scott Tyson: Good question. My understanding is they would screen all the bags carried by that person, but it is something I will try to clarify.

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Washington, D.C.: Have the checks started yet?

Ann Scott Tyson: Not to our knowledge.

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Laurel, Md.: Metro always cries about running out of money -- how can they afford to do this? Wouldn't the money best be spent hiring more officers and increasing patrols and presence throughout the entire system?

Ann Scott Tyson: They say that because they already have the police units and bomb sniffing dogs that this will not cost much. However there would be some cost for the materials used to conduct the screening.

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Hyattsville, Md.: It's already uncertain how long a trip on Metro may take! There are so many sources of delay and this seems like just one more.

Has Metro thought about bomb-sniffing dogs? The dogs would be much less disruptive.

Thanks.

Ann Scott Tyson: They will use bomb-sniffing dogs in carrying out these searches, in addition to the hand-held explosives reading devices.

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Bethesda, Md.: There's a big flaw in this scheme unless Metro will be searching bags at every station: if a person is refused entrance to one station he can simply go to another.

Ann Scott Tyson: Yes, and Metro officials acknowledge that the transit system is by necessity open and so they cannot screen everyone as airports do.

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So someplace like Metro Center: if stopped I can leave and just enter at another entrance?

Ann Scott Tyson: You can leave and are not supposed to enter that station - however, whether there would be inspectors at every entrance to enforce that is not clear.

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Twinbrook: Random drug testing in the workplace works because employees stay clean out of fear they will lose their jobs. The only way a random bag check will act as a deterrent would be if the person planning an attack was afraid he/she would be caught. This is an unlikely fear from someone who is willing to blow themselves up. This is a theater. Period. It will not make anyone safer.

Ann Scott Tyson: One could draw that conclusion.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you check the bags but not people too. People can have hidden things on them.

Ann Scott Tyson: Although the checks are for bags, if bomb-sniffing dogs are present I believe they would be able to smell something like an explosive vest worn under clothing.

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Alexandria, Va.: Yes, "Metro police made it clear that people have the right to refuse to have their bags screened;" however, they also said that people who do refuse will not be allowed to enter the system, and may also be questioned. In other words, by asserting your constitutional rights, you can be detained without probable cause. Never before has a citizen's assertion of their constitutional rights ever been considered probable cause.

Ann Scott Tyson: I agree that the legal aspects of this merit further exploration.

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Washington, D.C.: We've suddenly seen them begin checking bags that they said they would begin checking more than a year ago, today the VRE service is disrupted over a suspicious package, and yesterday a Christmas ornament closed the Pentagon Metro station. Has something happened recently to cause so much concern?

Ann Scott Tyson: There have been a couple of specific threats involving Metro in recent weeks. Metro officials have said, however, that the decision to conduct searches was not the result of any specific threat or elevated threat level.

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Ann Scott Tyson: Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion, which gave me a lot of additional questions to pursue with Metro and other experts. I am signing off now for an interview! Thanks again.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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