Thursday, September 22, 2005

Senators question security on mass transit


Senators question security on mass transit

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators challenged on Wednesday a Bush administration official's claim that security on American mass transit systems was "outstanding" as they called for more focus on subway and bus security to thwart a London-style attack.

"I must say, I don't know how you could make that judgment, when the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has not made a risk assessment" of the mass transit systems, Sen. Susan Collins told the official, Kip Hawley.

"In light of the attacks on mass transit systems in other countries, shouldn't we be beefing up?" said Collins, a Maine Republican and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "Clearly more could be done."

Hawley is the assistant secretary of homeland security for the Transportation Security Administration, a job he has held since the end of July. Both the Department of Homeland Security and TSA were created following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Hawley said he judged security on U.S. mass transit systems to be "outstanding" because they were able to quickly go on alert after the suicide bomb attacks on the London Underground on July 7, which took 52 lives.

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman said at least $15 billion had been spent on aviation security in the United States since the September 11 attacks, which were carried out with airliners, while only $300 million had been spent on mass transit security.

"That can't go on. We're inviting trouble if it does go on," Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said. He said 14 million Americans used mass transit systems every day, compared to 2 million who were air passengers.

In July, one week after the London attacks, the Senate defeated an effort to significantly increase funding for mass transit security amid a battle over security priorities, with large metropolitan areas claiming they were being shortchanged compared to rural districts.


The chief of Washington, D.C.'s transit police, Polly Hanson, complained to senators Wednesday that only a tiny fraction, three-tenths of one percent, of Homeland Security's budget was devoted to grants to protect transit infrastructure and the department erected bureaucratic hurdles to spending the money.

The transit system in the nation's capital still had not gotten the green light from Homeland Security to spend its grant funds for fiscal year 2005, which began last October 1, Hanson said. Hawley, asked by senators to explain, said he would tell Hanson "privately" the reason for the delay.

Hawley assured the committee that the Department of Homeland Security took mass transit security "very seriously" and had taken steps to improve it since the London attacks. For example, the department made 30 teams of explosive-detecting dog teams available to 10 large cities, he said.

Asked if there should be investment in closed-circuit television cameras, which London used to identify the suicide bombers and arrest perpetrators of a subsequent, failed attack, Hawley pointed out the cameras had not prevented the attacks.

"It is a cautionary tale that even with that level (of security), those attacks occurred. No system is invulnerable no matter what the investment is," he said. "You can't take the risk away."

London Underground meanwhile plans to double its number of CCTV cameras from 6,000 to 12,000 over the next five years, chief operating officer Mike Brown told the committee.