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Center for American Progress

New Strategies to Protect America: Terrorism and Mass Transit after London and Madrid

New Strategies to Protect America: Terrorism and Mass Transit after London and Madrid

Report outlines what the U.S. can do to shore up its own homeland security in light of the London and Madrid bombings.

There have been five attacks against transit systems in major international capitals over the past 17 months – two in Moscow, one in Madrid and now two in London – by terrorist cells either affiliated with or at least sympathetic to al Qaeda. However, other than the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decision to place all U.S. transit systems on “Orange Alert” (signifying a “High Threat Level”) and new random searches of bags on the New York transit system, there is little sense of urgency about mass transit security here in the United States. It does not appear that DHS is making any significant adjustments in policies and priorities – even as it is clear that terrorists are adjusting their tactics and pursuing softer targets in major cities around the world.  

There are a number of reasons for this. The current structure of homeland security emerged from the tragedy of September 11. Today, in terms of the protection of transportation infrastructure, the vast majority of resources – money and people – are dedicated to fixing what went wrong four years ago, to the detriment of other transportation modes that are increasingly at risk. Since homeland security emerged as the amalgamation of 22 existing federal agencies, there are still competing lines of authority and overlapping responsibilities when it comes to transportation security and particularly mass transit. And, despite multiple requirements by both the executive and legislative branches, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to complete a comprehensive national transportation security strategy that sets clear federal standards; outlines the responsibilities of federal, state and local governments and the private sector; determines the resources necessary to make the nation’s transportation systems – aviation, maritime, rail, transit and surface transportation – more secure; and identifies how those resources will be generated and sustained.  

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s increased emphasis on a risk-based approach to homeland security is laudable. If actually implemented, it will almost certainly give greater weight to transit security systems, which exist in urban centers where the terrorism risk to the United States is highest and are important components of regional economies across the country. In light of the attacks in Madrid and London, the United States needs to do the following:

  • Treat the homeland as a central front in the war on terror and view homeland security as a vital dimension of national security, with commensurate policy attention and priority;
  • Complete a comprehensive National Transportation Security Strategy that addresses the requirements necessary to secure our aviation, maritime, rail, transit and surface transportation systems; 
  • Redress the current resource imbalance in transportation infrastructure security and, based on risk assessment, devote more resources to mass transit security, both through dedicated transit security grants and through a higher percentage of homeland security funding; 
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and other federal entities involved in transit security; and 
  • Do what can be done to make transit systems more secure now; accelerate the development of more reliable explosive detection capabilities; and integrate improved security features into the design of future mass transportation systems. 

As one analysis of transportation security accurately put it, “The least emphasis has been placed on [land transportation security, including mass transit] because it was perceived as least pressing, and also because it is hardest to protect.”1 While experience shows that transit security is difficult, more can and should be done. The lack of priority attached to transit security stands in contrast to the actions of our terrorist adversaries, particularly since 9/11. 

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