In Big Apple and beyond, security alters commuter life
Random bag searches in New York may be just the beginning of a costly bid to make transit systems safer.
NEW YORK — This morning, many of America's 32 million straphangers are feeling the impact of the London tube bombings.
Transit systems from New York to Salt Lake City are expanding security operations, asking some of those bleary-eyed commuters to open their suitcases, backpacks, and briefcases for inspection. Bomb-sniffing dogs are padding up and down the aisles of trains, sniffing shoes and packages. Almost all are seeing an increase in armed police.
But security experts and political leaders are calling for much more to be done - and not just for a few weeks. Some want more spent on police, more video surveillance, and the development of other technology that may provide protection. The result is likely to be even more Americans finding their daily lives changed by terrorism.
"When a security incident or actual terrorism incident occurs, we react by heightening security, but then we go back to business as usual," says David Gaier, a transportation security consultant. "I think it's going to have to change permanently. We're going to have to accept that we're going to have put up with a level of inconvenience and intrusiveness that we've never known in this country."
But civil libertarians say it's more than an inconvenience: It could have long term implications on rights most Americans now take for granted. "We are living in a new society if the police can stop anyone without any suspicion whatsoever," says Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It may spell the end to one of our most basic protections - that you can't be stopped without cause."
Even security experts are uncertain about the best way to protect mass transit. But there is general agreement that a combination of deterrents works best. "We're all trying to come to terms with what the solutions are, recognizing that there is a gap there now," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "Obviously, in a more conventional [security] mode, it becomes a game of cat and mouse where they're always looking for defenses to get around. The randomness can keep an adversary on edge, so they know there's a chance they might get caught."
But more protection is also expensive. In a survey, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found transit systems need $6 billion for everything from more explosives-sniffing dogs to making bridges and tunnels bomb resistant. "We're estimating our industry is spending in excess of $900,000 per day on security beyond the norm," says Greg Hull, APTA's director of operations, safety, and security.
In April, Congress agreed to spend $250 million on mass-transit security, only half of which has been delivered. Last week, the Senate voted down an appropriation to a Homeland Security bill that would have given an additional $1.6 billion for mass-transit security. "We were kind of surprised we didn't get the money," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, one of the sponsors. "Now we're asking for a revote before we go to recess."
According to Mr. Schumer, it's not just the amount of money, but the restrictions placed on federal dollars. Currently, he says, federal funds can only be spent on technology and training. He believes it should be available for things city transit agencies need, such as dogs and police overtime. After 9/11, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority was given $600 million to increase security. Only a fraction of it has been spent, in part because officials say the kind of sophisticated explosives detection needed to protect urban buses and subways hasn't been developed yet.
But others say they could have used the money to install a comprehensive surveillance system, similar to London's. "It's fairly shocking that the MTA has $600 million for security and still doesn't have closed-circuit TV's for surveillance," says Michael Greenberger, a homeland security expert at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
Mr. Greenberger is critical of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for not doing more to encourage other technology development as well. No appropriate explosive-detection devices exist that could be used in a place like Grand Central Terminal, he says. And the technology that does exist to warn of chemical or biological agents is primitive.
Last week, in announcing what was effectively a mid-course correction for DHS, Secretary Michael Chertoff cited the need to use DHS's money and muscle to more aggressively develop technology. He noted that Congress passed a law three years ago that gave special protections against frivolous lawsuits to companies that are developing innovative security technologies - and more can be done to take advantage of it.
Until that technology is developed, many agencies will have to rely on old-fashioned police work. After the first London bombing, the Utah Transit Authority began random bag searches and questioning "suspicious-looking" individuals. "If someone is wearing baggy, out-of-season clothing or carrying heavy luggage, they are questioned," says Justin Jones, an agency spokesman. "Or if they are fidgety or their eyes are darting around, we ask to inspect their bags."
So far, the authority has found no terrorists. But it did question someone carrying a paintball gun. "They were pulled off, but they weren't upset and didn't realize it was alarming to the passengers," says Mr. Jones.