This column was originally published in the New York Daily News on Sunday, July 10, 2005.
The transit bombings in London, coming roughly 16 months after a similar attack in Madrid, represent a second grim wakeup call for the Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security to get serious about security for the nation’s open and vulnerable transit and cargo rail systems.
The Bush administration likes to say that we are fighting terrorists in Baghdad so we don’t have to confront them here at home. That is a fiction grimly unmasked by the audacious attack on London as the G-8 summit convened in Scotland.
Britain has as much experience in combating terrorism as anyone in the world because of its long experience battling the Irish Republican Army. The British have a dedicated domestic security and counterterrorism organization, MI5, a step the United States has chosen not to take. If the British are unable to detect and stop an attack despite MI5’s efforts in a high state of alert, then it’s clear that an attack on a U.S. transit or rail system like the MTA or PATH is a matter of when, not if.
And yet, the Bush administration has paid little more than lip service to transit security since last year’s Madrid bombing. It has actually gone to court to prevent action on rail security. While acknowledging that open transit and rail systems that are designed to be accessible are impossible to completely defend, more attention and action is necessary.
We have spent the majority of our homeland security funds since 9/11 addressing vulnerabilities in aviation security and bio-terrorism – in essence fighting previous wars rather than anticipating future attacks.
The bad news is that little has been done on transit and rail security. The worse news is that the Bush administration is heading in the wrong direction and actually making it more difficult to move forward.
The Bush administration is about to eliminate targeted federal grant programs for transit and rail security and consolidate all critical infrastructure security assistance into one underfunded pot. Transit and rail systems will be forced to compete with ports, chemical facilities and other vital sectors for scarce resources – only $600 million for fiscal year 2006, less than 1% of what we will spend securing Iraq next year.
The administration expects cities, states and even Amtrak to shoulder the costs of additional security without regard to whether they can afford it. At the same time, the Transportation Security Administration has been slow to hire authorized rail inspectors to test security plans developed by cities, states and the private sector.
Ironically, when it comes to cargo rail security, the Bush administration is actually trying to prevent local action. Earlier this year, the Bush administration supported a lawsuit by CSX Corp., a major rail company, to block the District of Columbia from excluding hazardous rail cars from train lines that run through the city center and perilously close to key government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.
While the case is still being litigated, the courts have encouraged the federal government to issue national rail security guidelines to preclude a hodgepodge of local solutions – a step the Department of Homeland Security has thus far been unwilling to take.
The attacks in Madrid and London make clear that we are living on borrowed time. What should be done?
First, American citizens need to be prepared for a Madrid/London-type attack on our transit systems. Since the days of IRA bombings, London has kept a significant police presence around the Tube and other transportation nodes, creating a security psychology that American cities should copy. The first line of defense against terror is a vigilant public, ready to respond as calmly and effectively as the British did last week.
Second, federal officials should develop clear national standards for rail and transit security. Now that Al Qaeda has successfully attacked rail systems in two major world capitals, the Bush administration also should reverse its current position and direct CSX to reroute hazardous material rail cars away from Washington.
Finally, the administration should spend more to help cities, states and the private sector secure our transportation sector. Congress should reject the administration’s proposed targeted infrastructure protection grant program and designate more money specifically for transit and rail security. More can be done to increase police presence and surveillance of rail and transit platforms and stations. We also need better training of transportation employees and more public education.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week that America will not change its policy based on one event. But given the clear risk demonstrated by rail attacks in Madrid and London, he should. Perfect security is not possible, but a failure to act is no longer an option.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Ben Armbruster is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.