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Security Beat 

GAO Slams Rail Security 

12  2,005 

By Stew Magnuson 

A Government Accountability Office report on U.S. rail security portrayed a passenger system seriously lagging behind its foreign counterparts when it comes to preparing for terrorist attacks.

As of July 2005, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration had not completed a risk assessment for the passenger rail sector. Security directives hastily issued in May 2004 after the March terrorist attacks on the Madrid rail system did not allow for public comment from stakeholders, resulting in confusion, and sometimes conflicts with safety measures. For example, a directive that rail engineers’ compartments remain locked contradicted Federal Railroad Administration regulations requiring they remain open in case a quick escape is needed.

The report’s authors, who traveled to 13 foreign rail systems to investigate their security measures, had several recommendations. Among the practices that could be transferred to federal authority were:

Covert testing to keep employees alert about their security responsibilities. This includes such tactics as placing suspicious items throughout the system to test reaction time. Some foreign operators carried out such drills on a daily basis.

Random screening of baggage. Such systems have been used during events such as the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and during security alerts after the July 2005 London bombings. Staffing would be an issue, and such systems would have to be designed to ensure civil liberties are not violated, the report warned.

A national clearinghouse on technologies and best practices. A centralized process for performing research and developing passenger rail security technologies would allow rail operators to have one central source for information.

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., seized on the report’s findings to criticize a deep cut to passenger rail security in the 2006 Homeland Security Appropriations Act signed into law in October. Rail security will receive $8 million next year, down from $12 million in 2005. “Even in the wake of the Madrid and London train bombings … there is no question that one of our greatest areas of vulnerability continues to be passenger rail,” Castle said in a statement. Castle introduced the Rail Security and Public Awareness Act of 2005 to address some of these concerns.

Amtrak, the Department of Transportation and DHS in written responses to the report, generally concurred with its findings.

The Department of Homeland Security expects to fully deploy the US-VISIT border entry program by the end of this year, expanding it to such out-of-the-way land crossings as Walhalla, N.D., and Limestone, Maine.

The program requires visitors entering the United States to register before and to submit to an inkless fingerprint scan and a digital mug shot prior to their departure. Previously, the system was in effect at 115 airports and 15 seaports. DHS has touted the program’s efficiency, saying the process is “simple, fast and clean.” Of the 38 million visitors who submitted to the process by the end of September, more than 850 criminals or immigration violators have been denied entry, DHS said.

The program has come under criticism from privacy advocates as well as the Government Accountability Office, which said in a February report that the program was understaffed and DHS had not demonstrated that its computers, networks and databases will work efficiently together. There have also been reports that passengers with names similar to those on watch lists have been wrongly detained.

DHS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman said the department is addressing the GAO’s concerns. “This includes ensuring adequate staffing, improving information sharing and creating interoperable systems to … secure our borders while facilitating travel,” she added.

Meanwhile, DHS announced that the burden will be on transportation carriers to ensure foreign passengers traveling on the Visa Waiver Program comply with a new requirement to have a digital picture in their passports rather than glued or laminated photos. Airlines and ferry companies face a $3,300 per passenger fine for noncompliance. The waiver program allows citizens from 27 countries to enter the United States without a visa.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rolled out a new explosive-detection system for passengers at the Pittsburgh International Airport in October, touting the bomb-sniffing device as a fast and efficient means to sniff out potential threats.

Passengers singled out for secondary screening will be asked to stand in a portal, about the same height as the ubiquitous metal detector, where they will feel a quick puff of air from head to toe. The Sentinel II, manufactured by Smiths Detection of Pine Brook, N.J., sniffs for suspicious particles, which are then sucked into the machine and analyzed in about 10 to 15 seconds. If a passenger has explosives, or has handled such substances recently, the machine will sound an alarm.

TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said the system is more passenger-friendly than intrusive pat downs and will “greatly enhance our ability to detect explosives and will increase the speed at which passengers process through.”

Twenty-five machines were set up in 19 airports prior to the Thanksgiving rush at a cost of $160,000 apiece. The TSA has allocated $28.3 million for the program so far, Kayser said. Field tests were conducted this year at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Baltimore and Jacksonville, Fla. Until additional funding is allocated, the TSA is not planning to cover 100 percent of airports with the devices, Kayser added.

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