Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 3, 2010

TSA: Turning to Mass Transit & Passenger Rail

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Mass Transit & Rail Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 3, 2010

Monday’s suicide bombing in Moscow’s subway system reminded us of the threat to subway and train systems.  While much of our attention has focused on aviation security in recent months, the bombing reminds us that rail systems remain an easy target for terrorists and militant groups hoping to cause damage. While the U.S. has avoided such an attack, the last fifteen years have seen several attacks carried out around the world against such systems, as well as one thwarted attack here in the U.S., including the following incidents:

  • 1995: Sarin gas is released by members of Aum Shinrkyo on several lines of the Tokyo Metro that were passing through key areas of the Japanese government, killing 13 people and injuring countless others.
  • 1995: Over a period of four months, several gas bottles exploded on the RER and the Metro in Paris, killing  8 and wounding more than 100 people. The attacks were attributed to the Armed Islamic Group.
  • 2004: In February, a suicide bomber killed 41 people and injured more than 120 in an explosion on the Moscow metro system.   Individuals linked to the militant Nikolai Kipkeyev were found guilty.  In August, Kipkeyev died when a female suicide bomber he was escorting into a Moscow subway panicked upon seeing a police officer and detonated her bomb, killing 8 people and wounding 50 others.
  • 2004: A series of coordinated bombings take place on Madrid’s Cercanias commuter train, killing 191 people and wounding 1800 others.  A direct connection to Al Qaeda is not found, though Spanish authorities determine that the attacks were done by by an Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell.
  • 2005: A series of coordinated suicide attacks occur on London’s mass transit system, carried out by four British Muslim men, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700.
  • 2006:  Seven bombs explode on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai, killing 209 and injuring more than 700.  The bombings were believed to be carried out by Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Students Islamic Movement of India.
  • 2009: Najibullah Zazi is arrested in Denver for planning suicide bombings on the New York City subway system.  On February 22, 2010 he pled guilty and admitted that he was recruited by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan to blow up the New York City subway.

So who is responsible for coordinating the U.S. rail and subway security systems here in the U.S.?  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Not only must TSA focus on aviation security (without an Administrator in place), it must also focus on mass transit and passenger rail security.  According to the TSA’s website, it does so by seeking to:

advance mass transit and passenger rail security through a comprehensive strategic approach that enhances capabilities to detect, deter, and prevent terrorist attacks and respond to and recover from attacks and security incidents, should they occur. TSA’s strategic priorities for mass transit and passenger rail security are:

* Focus efforts to mitigate high consequence risk to transit assets and systems, particularly underwater and underground infrastructure;

* Expand employment of random, unpredictable deterrence; and

* Build security force multipliers with training, drills and exercises, and public awareness

According to the FY 2011 DHS Budget Request, TSA is undertaking the following activities to secure mass transit, passenger rail, and bus:

  • shareholder collaboration with key stakeholders through its Regional Transit Security Working Group, which identifies regional priorities and resolves security needs.  Much of TSA’s regional work is focused on Tier 1 Transit Security Grant Program cities, including New York City, Boston, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
  • working with the American Public Transportation Association to develop consensus-based security standards for mass transit.
  • engaging in its “layered security operational test bed” to test operational and technological solutions for mass transit and passenger rail facilities.

In FY 2011, TSA requested $97.6 million to support its Surface Transportation Inspection Program and explosive detection canine program, a $29.4 million increase from FY 2010.

In terms of funding support for local mass transit areas, the Transportation Security Grant Program has requested $300 million for FY 2011. This money is allocated on a risk-based approach to eligible mass transit and bus systems, as well as to Amtrak, to enhance security measures on critical transit infrastructure.  Guidelines for the distribution of these funds are given in the DHS Appropriations bills, as well as in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

So how well is TSA doing on its efforts to better secure rail and and subway systems?  In a report entitled Transportation Security: Key Actions Have Been Taken to Enhance Mass Transit and Passenger Rail Security, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Federal Strategy and Programs released last June, the Government Accountability Office commended TSA for taking key steps to strengthen the systems.  At the same time, it noted that TSA faced a number of challenges hindering its success. Specifically, GAO found that TSA had not fully combined its assessments of threat, vulnerability, and consequence to conduct its risk assessments.  The GAO also noted that TSA faced a number of coordination challenges- both with industry and other agencies at the state, local, and federal levels.  Information sharing of security information remained a challenge, as did concerns regarding “potential costs and the feasibility of implementing pending employee security training requirements.”

The need to strengthen the federal relationships with transit agency officials across the country is one that also appeared in another June 2009 GAO report entitled, Transit Security Grant Program: DHS Allocates Grants Based on Risk, but Its Risk Methodology, Management Controls, and Grant Oversight Can Be Strengthened. In the report, the GAO noted that management and resource issues have resulted in delays in approving projects and distributing funds. According to the report, as of February 2009, transit agencies having spent only $21 million of the $755 million that had been awarded between 2006 and 2008.  To correct the shortcomings, GAO recommended that DHS strengthen its methodology for determining risk by developing a “cost-effective method for incorporating vulnerability information into future iterations of the” Transportation Security Grant Program.

It is safe to say that like much of TSA’s efforts on aviation security, its mass transit and passenger rail efforts remain a work in progress – showing some movement forward and continually evolving but in need of improvement.  Unfortunately, like our efforts in aviation security, many efforts remain reactionary in nature.  After the bombing in Moscow, a number of transit agencies across the nation beefed up their security, assigning more police, increasing K-9 teams, and conducting random station sweeps.  During those efforts, vulnerabilities were uncovered. For example, in New York City, the Associated Press reported that more than 4,000 security cameras in its subways were not working and that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had cut the number of police patrols throughout its systems.

While the U.S. has been fortunate to not have seen a successful attack carried out on a domestic mass transit and passenger rail system, its efforts to secure such systems should be prioritized and expanded.  In particular, an increased focus on risk-based grants, information sharing of key intelligence with relevant stakeholders, and identifying and deploying preventive technologies are key to strengthening our mass transit and passenger rail systems.

June 23, 2009

Accident or intention: responding with outrage or deliberation

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on June 23, 2009

Yesterday at 5:49 pm I received a text from DC’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency: “Metro reports that 2 trains collided and one train is on top of the other train.  Metro reports massive injuries at this time. The green line and the red line are affected. Further information to follow.”

This morning we have much more information.  There have been seven, and probably more,  fatalities and scores of  injuries. It is entirely too early to identify a cause, but signal system failure or operator error are the top suspects.  The operator of the colliding train is among the dead.

The dramatic scene of crumpled cars will keep the story near the top of this morning’s television news.  DC commuters have a tough day ahead. 

Consider how different the tone and scope of reporting — and our response – might be, if the text message had read something like, “Metro reports an explosion on a red line train.  Metro reports massive injuries at this time. The green line and the red line are affected. Further information to follow.”

Even if the fatalities and injuries had been fewer and the visual images no more dramatic,  for most of us the emotional reaction would be  much more agitated if the cause had been a terrorist attack.

Is the difference in response appropriate?   Is the difference unavoidable?  Are our very different responses helpful?

From an ethical or moral perspective the outrage we feel in response to a terrorist attack is appropriate.   The dehumanization that empowers such an attack is worthy of anger and more.

Some neuroscientists argue that the difference we feel depending on the natural, accidental, or intentional origin of an event is innate.  The brain’s amygdala reacts with fear and/or outrage, long before the prefrontal cortex begins to “think” about the event.

But when we do begin thinking, how we respond to accident or intention continues to be very different.

Today most of us — especially regular Metro riders — will discount the risk of recurrence.  We will, without much emotion, read the news reports and be interested in the eventual NTSB findings.  Unless there is credible evidence of gross negligence or a cover-up (which would stimulate outrage) our more analytic tendencies will define our response.  We will wait for evidence to inform how technology, hiring, training, and other systems might be improved. 

In response to an accident we value deliberation.  We approach the situation with a largely detached sense of our innate limitations, but with hope and faith in learning what we can to reduce the likelihood of a similar accident in the future.  We recognize that human judgment is involved in and responsible for the system.  But unless there is evidence of evil intention or gross negligence, we focus on the system more than the individuals.  This is even true when operator error is the principal culprit.  We seek to design and build systems that discourage operator error.

In case of an accident rather than blaming and punishing, we usually — most of us — focus on learning and improving.  Accidents will happen.  We look to systematically minimize accident potential and build a resilient system.

In the aftermath of a terrorist event the emphasis is flipped.  We tend to focus mostly on blaming and punishing.  Learning and improving the system can easily get lost in the outrage.

Human evil — banal or purposeful — is outrageous.  There is no value in suppressing the sharp alarm that responds to evil intention.  But outrage is insufficient and not well-suited for long-term strategic action.

(To sign-up for District of Columbia  HSMEA alerts: Text “DC” to 411911 or sign-up at https://textalert.ema.dc.gov/)

January 9, 2007

DHS announces infrastructure grants

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on January 9, 2007

DHS released a document today that provides an overview of the FY 2007 infrastructure grant programs at DHS, covering five distinct programs for port security, transit security, truck security, bus security, and buffer zone protection. As was the case with last week’s urban area grants, the port and transit grants allocations are broken up into distinct risk tiers, within which “Tier 1″ high-risk areas will receive approx. 83% of the transit security funding and 60% of the port security funding. Looking at the document, it appears that nearly every Tier 1 transit system or port will receive a significant increase in funding, with the exception of the Louisiana ports. The San Francisco Bay Area ports are up for an especially large increase, from $1.2 million in FY06 to $11.2 million in FY07, a decision that reverses what was a drastic cut in 2006.

Within these programs, Tier 2, 3, or 4 transit systems and ports will have to compete for their allocations from smaller fixed pools of funds. This could lead to cities that were likely on the borderline between Tier 1 and Tier 2 having lower levels of grant funding in 2007, e.g. Seattle’s transit system and the Ports of Baltimore and Charleston.

DHS deserves strong kudos for releasing this document in January, relatively early in fiscal year 2007. By comparison, in FY 2006 this document was not released until the very last week of the fiscal year, a delay that was detrimental to the ability of these transportation systems to manage security activities. Hopefully this is a sign of an better-managed grants process at DHS.

I’ll add a link to the transcript of the press conference announcing these grants when it becomes available.

Update (1/10): The transcript of the press conference is available here. And detailed guidance documents on the port security and transit security grant programs are available here.

December 15, 2006

TSA issues draft rail security regs

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on December 15, 2006

TSA held a press conference this morning to release a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for rail security regulations. The complete draft regs are available at this link, and will be open for comment for the next 60 days. The press release describes the major measures within the regs:

The proposed rule is part of a package of new security measures that will require freight rail carriers to ensure 100 percent positive hand-off of Toxic Inhalation Hazard (TIH) materials, establish security protocols for custody transfers of TIH rail cars in the high threat urban areas, and appoint a rail security coordinator to share information with the federal government, as well as formalizing the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) freight and passenger rail inspection authority.

This AP story and this NYT piece discuss the draft regs and offer some initial reactions to them from Capitol Hill.

At first glance, the portions of the NPRM that deal with hazardous materials on freight rail look solid; this is a high-risk segment of the broader rail environment, and safeguards on the security and chain of custody of hazmat rail cars is needed, going beyond what has generally been a relatively solid effort to date by the freight rail industry. But the NPRM essentially punts the ball on the topic of passenger rail, beyond establishing some vague reporting requirements. While it’s true that passenger rail security is inherently difficult in comparison with aviation security, given the open nature of rail and transit systems, I would have expected more of a discussion of these passenger issues in the regs.

December 7, 2006

White House issues EO on surface transport security

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on December 7, 2006

On Tuesday the White House issued an executive order (EO) entitled “Strengthening Surface Transportation Security.” The order mandates that DHS will put forward a sector-specific plan for surface transportation security under the auspices of the NIPP, and utilize that effort to identify gaps, determine funding priorities, issue new security requirements, and improve information-sharing capabilities in the sector.

This executive order comes only weeks before the start of the 110th Congress, during which the new Democratic leadership plans to prioritize rail and transit security legislation. This executive order seems like an attempt to pre-empt these efforts, and incoming House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson described this executive order in a press release as a “smokescreen.”

I have a similar reaction reading the executive order, which essentially admits that this issue has been ignored over the past five years. Why didn’t DHS develop a strategic plan for rail, transit, and trucking security two, or three, or four years ago? Why does it take this political sea-change to serve as a forcing action? While there are certainly limits to what can be done effectively to secure these modes of transport, there is definitely more that needs to be done, and hopefully we’ll see progress in these modes in the coming year.

You can read all of my posts on ground transport security issues over the past year in this topic thread.

November 16, 2006

Report analyzes hazmat training for rail workers

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on November 16, 2006

The group Citizens for Rail Safety released a report yesterday entitled “Training in Hazmat and Rail Security: Current status and Future Needs of Rail Workers and Community Members.” The report examines an issue that I haven’t seen much discussion on in the past few years: the training of rail workers on hazmat-related security issues. This matter is especially critical given the fact that hazmat-carrying railcars that are often stored in non-secured locations for days and weeks, as the report notes in numerous examples. Such railcars prevent a vulnerable target, and when they are located in urban areas (as is often the case), present a dangerous risk. The paper argues for better training of rail workers on hazmat-related issues as a response to this reality, a step that seems a sensible response to this reality.

September 25, 2006

DHS allocates FY06 port & transit security grants

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Ground Transport Security,Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on September 25, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security announced its FY 2006 allocations for the port, transit, and intercity bus homeland security grant programs, as detailed in this document. Looking at the allocations, it’s possible to detect a handful of trends:

  • Ports with extensive petrochemical assets, primarily along the Gulf Coast, made out very well in the allocations. The eight ports in Texas and Louisiana received funding totaling $57.7 million – approx. 1/3rd of the total allocation.
  • New York’s funding increased sharply, from $6.6 million in FY 2005 to $25.7 million in FY 2006 – not surprising given the fallout from the general grant allocations in June.
  • Ports in California made out poorly in the allocations. LA/Long Beach’s funding was halved from $24 million to $12 million, and other major ports – Oakland, San Diego – received little or no funding (a fact not lost on the Contra Costa Times).
  • Chicago, somewhat surprisingly, received a large allocation of $11.5 million, after have received less than $2 million in all previous rounds of port security grants combined.

A likely general explanation for these decisions, I would expect, is that certain ports (e.g. LA / Long Beach) have already made extensive investments in security, and DHS is spreading funds to a second tier of ports who have not received funding in previous rounds and are insufficiently protected by comparison and have higher “need” scores.

August 18, 2006

German authorities disclose rail terror plot

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on August 18, 2006

German authorities today disclosed a terror plot targeted at regional trains that was disrupted several weeks ago, as reported by Deutsche Welle:

Two suitcases containing bombs and found on trains in Germany were likely to have formed part of a terrorist plot, German investigators said Friday.

The bombs were found in the German cities of Dortmund and Koblenz on July 31 with German Criminal Police Office (BKA) chief Jörg Ziercke saying that were arranged to explode simultaneously at 2:30 p.m. Neither of the bombs was detonated.

“It’s more likely than unlikely that there was a terrorist background,” Ziercke told a news conference in Wiesbaden. If the around 25-kilo (55-lb.) suitcase bombs had exploded they would have lead to “a fireball” in the train carriages and an “indeterminate number of injured and possible deaths,” he said.

Speaking in Berlin Friday, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also warned that Germany should brace itself for similar attempts. “Unfortunately, we must assume that the danger of a repeat of these attempted attacks.”

The recent plot that this most resembles is the Madrid bombings, which were also targeted at regional commuter trains, and detonated with near-simultaneity. German authorities released pictures of men that they believe were connected to the plot, taken from video surveillance of train stations – another proof point for the value of this technology. Coverage of the story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in German) notes that a menu from a restaurant in Lebanon was found near one of the bombs, a potential hint (or deliberate false lead?) about the origin of the plot.

Update (8/19): One of the suspects has been arrested.

July 13, 2006

Radiation detection on the DC metro

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christian Beckner on July 13, 2006

I had an interesting ride on the DC metro this morning. The train car I entered had a Metro transit security officer on board, and about a minute after I got on, he notified a guy who was standing right next to me that the guy was triggering his Radiation Detection Pager (I believe it was this model). Its reading jumped rapidly from a level of ’1′ to a level of ’5′. The officer began asking him a number of questions. Did you have an x-ray or other medical treatment recently? No. Do you have a smoke alarm with you? No, he said, but I had changed the battery on it within the previous day. Do you have anything else on your person that might set this off? No. He then waived the radiation detector again, showing him clearly that something on his person – not in his bags – was setting this off.

The train arrived at the next station, and the two of them got off and he waved the radiation detection over him again out on the platform. The passenger got back on the train, and the officer left the car – there was some kind of medical emergency elsewhere on the train – and that was it. End of incident.

As far as I could tell, the officer never resolved why the radiation detector was going off near the guy. And he did not ever ask the man his name, or take down any other personal information.

Is this the right way to deal for Metro officials to deal with incidents such as this? Wouldn’t a better response have been to stay with the guy until this was resolved, and take down his personal information – and if necessary, send an FBI agent out to his primary residence to see if there were any abnormal readings of radiation?

There’s at least a 99% chance that this was unconnected to any malicious threat. But in spite of those odds, I don’t think it was right to simply let this pass without taking further action (at the very least getting his name). And not only for terror-related reasons, but also for public safety purposes – perhaps the guy was being exposed at home or elsewhere, without his knowledge, to some dangerous source of radiation.

So what’s the story? How often do these ‘detections’ occur on the Metro? (I’ve traveled on the metro at least a thousand times in the last few years, and have never witnessed an incident like this before). What’s the policy to deal with them? Was this response within that policy?

July 11, 2006

Train bombings in Mumbai

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on July 11, 2006

Seven separate explosions ripped through evening commuter trains in Mumbai, India today. The toll of casualties stands at 135+ dead and 400+ injured as of posting, and is likely to continue to rise. Most early reports cite Kashmiri separatists as the likely culprits, given a known preference for multiple simultaneous attacks and the fact that there were six grenade attacks in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar earlier today, killing seven. Is the fact that it occurred on the 11th of the month – like 9/11 and the 3/11 Madrid bombings – intentional?

For more information, check out the Counterterrorism Blog, this local Mumbai blog, and updated coverage on the websites of The Hindu and The Times of India.

July 7, 2006

New CRS report on transportation security

Filed under: Aviation Security,Ground Transport Security,Port and Maritime Security — by Christian Beckner on July 7, 2006

New from the taxpayer-funded Congressional Research Service, available right now exclusively at HLS Watch:

Transportation Security: Issues for the 109th Congress, July 5, 2006 (RL33512).

The report provides a good, concise summary of current issues before Congress in all modes of transportation security: air, land, and sea.

Transit security, one year after London

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on July 7, 2006

The 1st anniversary of the London transit and bus bombings prompted DHS to issue a press release today citing their accomplishments in the areas of rail and transit security. This afternoon Sec. Chertoff is holding a press conference in Boston to discuss the topic. All of this follows the announcement yesterday of the FY 2006 transit security grants. That makes this week a rare moment of attention for transit security, a topic which has often seemed like a backburner issue at the Department of Homeland Security, especially given Sec. Chertoff’s ill-advised remark on transit security last year:

In an interview with the AP, Chertoff said: ”The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”

Asked whether this meant that communities should be ready to provide the bulk of the protection for local transit systems, Chertoff said, ”Yep.”

I’ve defended this statement by Sec. Chertoff before, arguing that from a risk assessment perspective, he was factually correct. The revelations in The One-Perfect Doctrine on the “mubtakkar” and the plotted cyanide gas attack on the NY subway make me now think that he had underestimated the potential consequences of a subway attack, but I still agree with his main point: that the rail and transit sector doesn’t require the same level of security as aviation. But the status quo level of funding is inadequate, as Dan Prieto convincingly argues today in the Washington Times:

We need to rethink the enormous federal spending bias in favor of aviation security. State and local transit authorities are doing the best they can to improve the security of public transportation, spending $1.7 billion of their own limited resources from September 11, 2001, through 2003. But the vast majority of that spending went to cover temporary security measures, such as the cost of employee overtime during periods of alert. That has left insufficient resources for needed permanent improvements in security.

Without greater federal assistance, the country will fail to make the investments that the most vulnerable transit systems in our largest cities need now: interoperable communications, security cameras, technologies to detect bombs and chemical, biological and nuclear agents and investments in better ventilation, fire safety, lighting and tunnel and stairwell access, which can dramatically improve the chances of surviving an attack.

Improving public transportation security need not mean unlimited spending. Directed federal assistance over several years would result in $3 billion to $5 billion in meaningful improvements. Better yet, the value of such investments will be magnified since security upgrades can also benefit overall safety and day-to-day transit operations. Surely $3 billion to protect subway riders against terrorists can’t be too much to ask when last year’s transportation bill contained up to $3 billion for bicycle and walking trails.

Surprisingly, much of the money for public transportation security can be had without busting the budget. Aviation security spending by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should decline naturally over the near- to medium-term, because a large portion of spending since September 11 reflects the one-time costs of hardened cockpit doors and airport screening devices — spending that does not need to be repeated year after year.

The need for investment that would improve the ability of passengers to evacuate from subway systems is particularly acute. Last week passengers on the DC Metro experienced hour-long delays due to flooding at several stations. Trains were stacked up and idled in long, dark, narrow tunnels for long periods of time. What if there were a bombing or a chemical attack? What’s being done to ensure orderly evacuation that minimizes loss of life? Not enough, I’m afraid.

Plot to attack Holland Tunnel disrupted

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on July 7, 2006

The New York Daily News broke a story this morning about a disrupted plot to bomb the Holland Tunnel and perhaps other assets in NYC:

The FBI has uncovered what officials consider a serious plot by jihadists to bomb the Holland Tunnel in hopes of causing a torrent of water to deluge lower Manhattan, the Daily News has learned.

The terrorists sought to drown the Financial District as New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina, sources said. They also wanted to attack subways and other tunnels.

Counterterrorism officials are alarmed by the “lone wolf” terror plot because they allegedly got a pledge of financial and tactical support from Jordanian associates of top terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before he was killed in Iraq, a counterterrorism source told The News.

It’s not clear, however, if any cash or assistance was delivered.

The News has learned that at the request of U.S. officials, authorities in Beirut arrested one of the alleged conspirators, identified as Amir Andalousli, in recent months. Agents were scrambling yesterday to try to nab other suspects, sources said.

DHS and the FBI released a statement in response to the story today, confirming that it had disrupted an attack that was in the “planning stages.” Subsequent reportage has noted that this plot was largely hatched on internet chat rooms, and was far from operational. The AP quotes Rep. Peter King noting that “there was nothing imminent [about the plot], but it was being monitored for long period of time.” And a second Daily News story highlights the absurdity of the idea that an attack on the Holland Tunnel would flood the financial district of Manhattan.

7/7 + 1

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on July 7, 2006

Requiescat in Pace.

June 21, 2006

House Dems release report on rail & transit security

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on June 21, 2006

The Democratic staff of the House Homeland Security Committee released a report yesterday entitled “Detour Ahead: Critical Vulnerabilities in America’s Rail and Mass Transit Security Programs.” The report provides a solid overview of this issue, looking at the history of threats to rail and mass transit systems, chronicling was DHS has done to address these threats, and putting forward a set of immediate recommendations for how to improve security in these critical systems.

The report acknowledges that security in rail and mass transit systems is inherently difficult, given the open nature of these systems, in comparison with “closed systems” such as the commercial aviation sector. It does not recommend measures that would harm the efficiency of these systems. But it makes a strong case that much more can be done to improve security, by focusing on clarifying jurisdictional issues among competing agencies, investing in security training for rail and mass transit workforces, and setting a clear agenda for next-generation technologies that could improve the security of the sector.

Overall, a solid and balanced report, and one which DHS should take seriously.

June 18, 2006

Report: Plot to attack NYC subway called off in 2002

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on June 18, 2006

Author Ron Suskind has a whopper of a chapter from his new book The One Percent Doctrine in this week’s issue of Time Magazine which penetrates the inner sanctums of the war on terror and describes a terrorist plot to attack the New York subway system with the chemical hydrogen cyanide that was close to execution, before being called off by Al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri:

[Al-Qaeda mole 'Ali'] said that al-Ayeri had come to tell al-Zawahiri of a plot that was well under way in the United States. It was a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. The cell members had traveled to New York City through North Africa in the fall of 2002 and had thoroughly cased the locations for the attacks. The device would be the mubtakkar. There would be several placed in subway cars and other strategic locations and activated remotely. This was well past conception and early planning. The group was operational. They were 45 days from zero hour.

Then Ali told his handlers something that left intelligence officials speechless and vexed. Al-Zawahiri had called off the attacks. Ali did not know the precise explanation why. He just knew al-Zawahiri had called them off.

Assuming this story is accurate, it confirms what I’ve believed (and many other analysts have argued) for a while: that the core of al-Qaeda is focused on catastrophic attacks on the United States – probably using nuclear or biological weapons – and everything other type of attack is secondary from their perspective (or detrimental, to the extent that it would lead to increased protection and vigilance). This story offers a strong counterpoint to those who have argued that the WMD threat is overhyped, or that we aren’t doing enough to protect “soft” targets.

And even though al-Zawahiri evidently called off this plot, this story also raises questions about what we’re doing to protect the nation’s mass transit systems. Even if the “core” al-Qaeda isn’t interested in them, per this story, they are still at risk from loose al-Qaeda affiliates or other groups. Last year the Congress appropriated $150 million for rail and mass-transit grants for FY 2006, via the Transit Security Grant Program. We’re now nine months into FY 2006, and DHS hasn’t even begun to distribute a penny of this $150 million (or if they have, they haven’t advertised it). That’s unacceptable.

Overall, a fascinating story – definitely read the whole thing.

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