Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 16, 2006

House announces ‘SAFE Truckers Act’

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on June 16, 2006

The House Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing today to release the SAFE Truckers Act (H.R. 5604), a bipartisan bill intended to improve the security of the trucking system. A press release by bill co-sponsor Jane Harman summarizes the intent of the bill:

“The successful movement of goods by truck is vital to the American economy, but it presents a soft underbelly in our homeland security efforts,” Harman said. “We need to focus our limited resources on where we are vulnerable, and that means knowing who is behind the wheel of a big-rig with dangerous materials.”

The SAFE Truckers Act calls for fingerprint-based background checks for a limited list of drivers handling security sensitive materials (SSMAT). It also requires the Transportation Security Administration to issue SSMAT documentation together with the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, helping streamline security credentials for workers. The new bill also calls for verification of all transportation documents and civil penalties on shippers failing to do so.

This is a good bill, smartly focusing resources on the trucks that pose the greatest threat, and establishing civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance, while at the same time removing some of the burden on trucks that pose a low threat. Hopefully this bill will get some traction in Congress; perhaps it could be attached to related transportation security legislation (e.g. S. 2459 or S. 2791) currently moving forward in Congress.

Update (6/22): The prepared statements from the hearing are now available online:

Robert Jamison, TSA
David McClimon, Con-way Freight
Todd Spencer, Independent Drivers Association
Cynthia Hilton, Institute of Makers of Explosives

May 25, 2006

Canada declassifies reports on surface transport and maritime threats

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

Secrecy News has obtained copies of two recently-declassified (but heavily redacted) reports by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service:

“International and National Terrorist Threats to Surface Transportation,” 2002.

“The International Terrorist Threat to Maritime Transportation,” 2003.

The two reports are interesting reads even in their redacted states, and given the paucity of publicly-available threat analysis from governments, they’re useful for validating open-source threat analysis.

May 11, 2006

UK House of Commons reports on 7/7 London bombings

The Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK House of Commons released its “Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005” today. The government’s official response to the report is available at this link. CNN provides a synopsis:

If more resources had been in place sooner there would have been a greater chance of preventing the July 7 Tube and bus bombings in London, an official report says.

The report by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee also recommended a more transparent threat level and alert system in Britain.

It said it was likely two of the bombers had links with al Qaeda — though the extent of al Qaeda involvement in Britain’s worst-ever terrorist atrocity remained unclear.

The chances of preventing the July 7 attacks, which killed 52 people and wounded 700 others, might have been greater had different investigative decisions been made by Britain’s security services, the report said.

The section of the report on threat assessment and public warning is particularly interesting, and relevant for the U.S. debate on the same issues – a debate that has become dormant in the past year but is still far from resolved.

Update (5/11): In response to the report, new UK Homeland Security John Reid told the House of Commons that the British government has prevented three terrorist attacks since 7/7.

Update 2 (5/11): Here’s a related report from the UK Home Office, also released today.

May 4, 2006

New DHS threat warning on mass transit

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on May 4, 2006

From the Washington Post:

Two incidents of “suspicious videotaping” of a European mass-transit system this year prompted a U.S. government warning to domestic homeland security officials this week about possible terrorist surveillance.

The unclassified Department of Homeland Security “public-sector notice” did not describe the incidents or where they occurred, but said they took place in the past 120 days. The bulletin, issued Tuesday, said the episodes provided “indications of continued terrorist interest in mass-transit systems as targets and potentially useful insight into terrorist surveillance techniques.” ….

“There is not specific or credible intelligence at this time suggesting a threat to U.S.-based mass-transit systems,” said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. “We regularly share information with our homeland security advisers and law enforcement partners . . . to continue to encourage vigilance.”

April 3, 2006

Britain invests in rail security scanners

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on April 3, 2006

British newspapers report today that the UK government is making a significant investment in airline-style passenger screening technology at rail stations. From The Telegraph:

Security scanners are to be deployed at major railway stations, Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary has claimed.

The portable technology will be used in a number of cities including Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh.

The move follows a successful trial of metal detectors at several Tube stations in London, which led to 100 arrests and the seizure of 68 knives after around 10,000 passengers were checked.

Within limits, this is a prudent investment by the UK, to the extent it introduces unpredictability into the system as a tool for preventing and deterring criminal and terrorist activity. But I don’t think 100% screening is either feasible or desirable, except perhaps on high-speed rail lines (i.e. TGV, ICE, Eurostar) which offer a higher-profile target.

March 30, 2006

Highway Watch revisited: what next for trucking security?

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on March 30, 2006

Fleet Owner magazine has an article today that interviews the departing director of the American Trucking Association’s Highway Watch program, cites the program’s accomplishments, and highlights some of the challenges that it faces:

To date, Highway Watch has trained nearly 250,000 transportation professionals to identify and report emergencies and suspicious activities. [Don] Rondeau noted that although many large carriers have been trained and developed security protocols, he believes vulnerabilities remain in many medium and small trucking companies.

“I think that it will be difficult but we must do it,” Rondeau said. “We have to recognize that the owner-operator and the mid-sized trucking companies make up the bulk of the industry. They make up a significant portion of the risk associated with any potential event. If you’re a bad guy would you take advantage of a large corporation, or a guy that’s driving in his office? At the end of the day…we’d be remiss if we didn’t make sure that all members that are elements of the transportation sector could harden their security.”

I agree that these are real risks. The security of an open system like trucking is in a sense only as good as its weakest link. That’s why I worry that we haven’t done enough to secure the trucking sector, especially hazmat trucks, and the 770,000 shipments of hazardous materials that are moved on trucks each day. As I noted in a post in December 2005, the only two significant things that DHS has really done on trucking security are fund Highway Watch and conduct background checks on hazmat drivers. And while useful, that is not enough.


Does the trucking sector need the same degree of security as the aviation system? Absolutely not, since the threats and consequences are different, and the system is inherently difficult to protect. But we know that terrorists have used trucks dozens of times to carry out attacks. MIPT’s terrorism database includes 432 incident documents that include the word “truck.” And we know that there are scenarios where a truck can be used to cause substantial damage, both from painful experience and from hypothetical scenarios such as an intentional BLEVE. (See this video of an accidental LPG tanker truck BLEVE).

The threats and needs for trucking security are without a doubt greater than the level of funding that DHS has provided to address them. Instead, the DHS FY 2007 budget request shows little interest in trucking security; funding for Highway Watch (via the trucking industry security grant program) is nowhere to be found, and the TSA wants to eliminate funding for a hazardous materials truck tracking pilot project which is funded at $4 million this year. And there are no new initiatives to supercede these programs, as far as I can tell.

More thought needs to be given to a strategic, layered approach to trucking security – one that has a role for Highway Watch, but doesn’t end there, and includes activities such as better training and enhanced information-sharing for state Highway Patrols, incentives for the voluntary inclusion of security tools in truck telematic systems, a more direct role for security investment in the Intelligent Transportation Systems funding stream, and integration with air and maritime security activities.

March 27, 2006

NY Times looks at vulnerable railyards

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on March 27, 2006

From the New York Times today:

The railways transport more than 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials every year, including 100,000 tank cars filled with toxic gases like chlorine and anhydrous ammonia.

According to a recent study by the Navy, an accident or terrorist attack involving a single car of chlorine near a densely populated area could kill as many as 100,000 people.

In New Jersey, where so many chemical factories and refineries are crowded near major population centers, including a stretch near Newark Liberty International Airport that has been called “the most dangerous two miles in America,” the difficulty of managing that potentially deadly cargo is particularly complex.

Since 9/11, railroads have spent millions to install fences and security cameras and add additional officers around the state, but industry officials concede that their facilities are far too large to be completely sealed. Leaders of railroad workers’ unions say it is not uncommon for tanker cars to be left unattended for days, and that security along the rails is frighteningly inadequate. And the sight of graffiti-covered tank cars filled with deadly gases is a reminder of the holes in the security system.

I agree with the Association of American Railroads’ assertion in the article that they have taken steps to address rail security issues – by every account I’ve heard, they have been much more proactive than other industries at improving their own security. But when I read passages like this one below, it’s clear that DHS and other relevant government agencies need a greater sense of urgency about improving rail security:

“Chemical transport is clearly the greatest vulnerability in the country today, and for some reason — and I’m not sure what it is — the federal government has not acted,” said Richard A. Falkenrath, President Bush’s former deputy homeland security adviser. “There’s no legislation necessary, the government already has the authority to require stronger containers, reroute shipments, and allow the kind of tracking that would allow local police agencies to know what they have to contend with in their communities. But to date it hasn’t been done.”

March 10, 2006

Senators speak out on rail security

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on March 10, 2006

Several Democratic Senators held a press conference on Thursday on the subject of rail security two years after the Madrid bombings. From a Knight Ridder story:

[Sen. Joseph] Biden asserted that the U.S. rail system is a soft target for terrorists. Since the 9-11 attacks there has been “virtually no new security” for rail infrastructure, he said. In fact, he said, rail security receives half the amount of funding compared to airport security even with the vast number of rail passengers. He said that the floor plans for New York City’s Grand Central Station were in possession of the terrorists who bombed Madrid in March 11, 2004, killing 190….

“Since 9-11, we’ve done an admirable job beefing up the security of our airlines, but we’re still not doing all we can to keep our vulnerable rail and transit lines safe and secure,” said Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said the administration is inattentive to the possibility of such terror attacks. While the Madrid train attacks were a wake-up call and the London bombings were a reminder, Menendez said, the administration has pressed the snooze button by failing to implement security upgrades.

Biden said that, while addressing the security of all of the nation’s rails is insurmountable, “we can focus where we’re most vulnerable.”

The article also cites a TSA spokesperson outlining recent activity on rail security, but the article indicates dissatisfaction among these senators with these efforts. And a related Gannett story notes plans to introduce new legislation related to this threat:

Sen. Joe Biden, of Delaware, said Thursday he will introduce legislation to create a “national rail police force” to protect Amtrak.

Biden said his bill would spend $82 million annually for a 1,000-member “federal marshal” force for Amtrak. Currently, there are 288 Amtrak officers for the entire nation, he said.

I think that more needs to be done in the area of rail and transit security, but I’m not sure that this proposal is the right answer, especially at this scale. There were around 630 million domestic aviation trips in 2004, and around 3,000 air marshals according to published reports. But there were only about 25 million trips on Amtrak (excluding commuter rail) in 2004, which suggests that a “rail marshal” force of 1,000 would be too large. A smaller force for the high-speed and higher-threat Northeast Corridor might be appropriate, and we should also consider new investments in screening, explosive detection (sniffer dogs), and track monitoring as part of a layered security strategy for the rail system.

February 21, 2006

Are we getting ‘fleeced’ on homeland security?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on February 21, 2006

Veronique de Rugy from AEI and Nick Gillespie from Reason magazine published their latest broadside against homeland security spending over the weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article contains the same themes that they’ve been sounding for at least a couple of years: taxpayers are getting “fleeced” because DHS and the states are wasting money on things they don’t need:

Rest easy, America. As a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Princeton, N.J., Fire Department now owns Nautilus exercise equipment, free weights and a Bowflex machine. The police dogs of Columbus, Ohio, are protected by Kevlar vests, thank God. Mason County, Wash., is the proud owner of a half-dozen state-of-the-art emergency radios (never mind that they are incompatible with existing county radios).

All of these crucial purchases — and many more like them — were paid for with homeland security grants. Doesn’t it make you feel more secure that $100,000 in such money went to fund the federal Child Pornography Tipline? That $38 million went to cover fire claims related to the April 2001 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico?…

I made the argument that these themes are very misleading in this post and this post last month, noting then that these articles repeat the same, tired examples of homeland security waste, but have no evidence of wasteful spending on systematic basis. The same is true with this story.

In addition to their well-worn arguments, De Rugy and Gillespie introduce a few new wrinkles into their line of argument to attempt to persuade the reader that taxpayers are being fleeced on homeland security. For example:

Total homeland security spending in 2006 will be at least $50 billion, split between the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies, including, improbably, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and NASA.

The latter part of the sentence implies that homeland security funds are been tossed around indiscriminately within the federal government to non-security agencies, which is blatantly misleading. This document from the OMB provides information on what EPA, Commerce, and NASA are spending money on for homeland security. EPA has lead responsibility for ensuring the security of the nation’s drinking water. Is that waste? Commerce’s homeland security spending largely consists of export control enforcement for sensitive technologies and homeland security standards-setting at NIST – both sensible activities. And NASA’s spending is solely for the physical security of its own facilities around the country, many of which require a high level of security based on their risk – certainly a sensible thing to fund.

And later in the story they criticize transit security funding:

In the aftermath of the two attacks on the London subway system in July, lawmakers and lobbyists proposed increases from $100 million to $6 billion in funding to secure public transportation. Yet if the London bombings teach us anything, it’s that throwing money at transit security is unlikely to have an impact. After decades of combating Irish Republican Army terrorists, the London subway system is known to be one of the best protected in the world, but the large public investment in surveillance did not prevent the two terrorist attacks. The second incident occurred even while the system was in maximum alert mode. Experts agree that options are limited, if not nonexistent, for preventing such strikes. So why spend money on it?

I agree that many of the large-dollar proposals for transit security were overboard. But to suggest giving up and spending no money on transit security because of the London attacks is the height of folly. The lesson that I took away from London was that their investment in surveillance was worthwhile, given the way that were able to quickly solve the case. Surveillance also has a value as a deterrent against attacks. And there are other sensible investments that should be made in transit security, such as chem-bio detectors, exit lighting, and public awareness campaigns.

There’s no excuse for wasteful homeland security spending: it should be pointed out and criticized. But it’s misleading and perhaps even dangerous to try to use these examples to imply that America should decrease its homeland security spending, at a time when we still have much, much more that we need to be doing to protect the country.

February 8, 2006

Screening technologies tested on PATH trains

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on February 8, 2006

The Washington Post writes today about new pilot project activity in NJ to test rail and transit screening technologies:

Manhattan-bound commuters passed through metal detectors and shoved their briefcases and knapsacks through X-ray machines Tuesday in the first test of airport-style security in a rail system.

Government screeners searched bags and scanned passengers for explosives, but unlike in airports, commuters did not have to remove their shoes or change and cell phones from their pockets. Officials hope the screening won’t take more than a minute per passenger.

The 30-day pilot project, led by the Department of Homeland Security, is part of a two-phase program with a $10 million price tag. In 2004, the Transportation Security Administration conducted a similar pilot program at New Carrollton and Union Station in the D.C. area and in New Haven, Conn. But federal officials used different equipment and screeners randomly selected passengers for testing.

I think it’s a very appropriate use of DHS resources to be testing these technologies, even though the use of checkpoint-style screening will probably never be feasible in most transit and rail systems due to cost and the relative consequences of an attack. It’s probably appropriate to have checkpoint-style screening for high-speed rail (i.e. Acela trains), as is already the case on some of the high-speed lines in Europe (such as the Paris-London Eurostar trains), but not for slower trains and transit systems.

The article also notes that DHS plans to test “non-obtrusive scanning devices such as MRI and infrared technology” in a second phase of the Jersey City pilot. If these types of technologies prove to be effective, then they are probably a better long-term solution for rail and transit security than aviation-style screening.

January 4, 2006

Designing safer transit security: a new report

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on January 4, 2006

The UCLA International Institute has just published an article highlighting a new report on designing safer transit security, soon to be released by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and the Mineta Transport Institute. Although the full report is not yet available, the main ideas in it are previewed in this article.

Some of the key findings:

According to UCLA Urban Planning Chair Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who led a team of researchers in a study of post-9/11 mass-transit security in the United States and foreign capitals, casualties in bombing attacks on mass transit result mainly from flying shrapnel, and replacing glass and other materials is cheaper than many upgrades. Good environmental design, which is easiest to achieve when transit stations are first built, also makes packages hard to hide and has the welcome side-effect of reducing petty crime.


One contentious issue among policy-makers is whether to ask for passengers’ assistance in identifying suspicious packages and other threats. In the United States, Loukaitou-Sideris said, educational campaigns designed to involve transit riders in security are not advanced.

Loukaitou-Sideris contrasted the approaches of officials in London who encourage input from riders and some in Madrid who fear that announcements about suspicious packages will scare people away. She prefers the British approach and argues that, with concerns about terrorism running high globally, “I don’t think that announcements over the microphones are really going to scare people.”

This looks like a sensible, well-researched study at first impression, and the survey data from nearly 250 transit agencies worldwide should provide a valuable baseline assessment for future transit security initiatives. I look forward to seeing the full report.

December 14, 2005

WaPo on new TSA “Viper Teams”

Filed under: Aviation Security,Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on December 14, 2005

The Washington Post has a front page story on Wednesday on new “Viper Teams” being established by TSA to conduct new surveillance and law enforcement activities. The first two paragraphs:

Teams of undercover air marshals and uniformed law enforcement officers will fan out to bus and train stations, ferries, and mass transit facilities across the country this week in a new test program to conduct surveillance and “counter potential criminal terrorist activity in all modes of transportation,” according to internal federal documents.

According to internal Transportation Security Administration documents, the program calls for newly created “Visible Intermodal Protection and Response” teams — called “Viper” teams — to take positions in public areas along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Los Angeles rail lines; ferries in Washington state; and mass transit systems in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Viper teams will also patrol the Washington Metro system.

My initial reactions to this story:

1. Any time that TSA expands its efforts beyond aviation and works on other modes of transportation (land and sea, consistent with the ATSA “all-modes” vision for TSA), I say “bravo.”

2. The fact that air marshals will be sharing knowledge about how to conduct surveillance activities with screeners is a good thing, and is exactly the kind of regular ‘knowledge transfer’ that should be taking place across all groups of people working on homeland security.

3. TSA is probably going to take at least a mild political hit for this story; given the air marshal incident last week and the wrongful shooting on the London Underground in July, now might not be the smartest time to put air marshals in the subways…especially if they are armed and still have shoot-to-kill powers (which isn’t clear from the story).

Read the whole thing.

Update: The Post reported on Thursday that TSA has stalled its initial plans as a result of the initial story, which exposed confusion and some reluctance among transit systems about the Viper Teams.

December 8, 2005

Security on the highways…

Filed under: Ground Transport Security — by Christian Beckner on December 8, 2005

Bruce Schneier posts today on the Highway Watch program for truck security, and comments that it “has merit” because “it’s dynamic, it’s distributed, it relies on trained people paying attention, and it’s not focused on a specific threat.”

Those attributes are true, but I’m a bit less sanguine about the program, mainly because I don’t think it’s commensurate with the nature of the threat (given that trucks have been part of the m.o. of dozens of terror attacks around the world), and is a poor substitute for a comprehensive and strategic approach to truck security. I’ve been paying attention to this issue for a while now…and while there are no easy answers, given the wide open nature of the system, I do think that there needs to be a more systematic approach.

Today, four years after 9/11, the only two things that have really been done domestically on trucking security are Highway Watch (and the related ISAC) and background checks for hazmat truck drivers.

There are other things that could be considered to improve the security of the system. For example, is enough being done to ensure that al-Qaeda isn’t creating front companies that own and operate trucks? If a truck containing hazardous or explosive materials is stolen, what can law enforcement do to track it down? Is enough being done to make it more difficult for bad guys to rent trucks? Are there existing air and maritime security programs that have relevance for trucking security?

I don’t have answers to these questions, because we haven’t even begun to test hypothetical systems, policies, and technologies that might apply. There hasn’t really been a debate on what a smart, efficient truck security might look like, and we’ve defaulted to the policy of “let the truckers take care of it” with Highway Watch. If there is a terrorist attack in the U.S. involving a truck, we’re likely to see over-reaction in the other direction as a result. That’s why I think that Schneier’s a bit too optimistic in his post.

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