Terror alert level raised for transit

Authorities boost security on buses, trains, subways

No intelligence on U.S. attack

Systems said to be safer since the Sept. 11 strikes

Americans' Safety

Bombings In London

July 08, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The federal government raised the terror alert level for mass transit systems yesterday as national, state and local agencies scrambled to beef up security on trains, subways and buses amid concern that the bombings in London might be followed by a similar attack here.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized that American intelligence agencies had "no credible information" suggesting an imminent attack. But he said it was prudent to tighten security, as analysts sifted information that has come in over the past few weeks for any hint of danger.

"Common sense again tells us that we ought to make some reasonable adjustment," Chertoff said. "Obviously, we're concerned about the possibility of a copycat attack."

The status for transit systems was raised to orange, or "high," from yellow, or "elevated." It was the first time the threat level had been raised in almost a year and the first time for the transit sector alone. Last August, federal officials bumped the alert to orange for financial institutions in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J., after intelligence suggested that attacks were possible.

"We are not suggesting that people avoid public transportation systems," Chertoff said. "Rather, we're asking that they use those systems, but with an increased awareness of their surroundings."

Chertoff said Americans should take comfort in the knowledge that the nation's transit systems are operating from a "baseline of preparedness" that is much better than it was on Sept. 11, 2001 - or in 2004, when trains were attacked in Madrid, Spain.

News of the London bombings, which came before dawn in the United States, set off a feverish effort early yesterday to identify possible threats to Americans before they began trekking to work.

President Bush, in Scotland for a summit of industrialized nations, took part in a video conference with his homeland and national security advisers to discuss the situation. John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, was notified shortly after 5 a.m. and was in his office within an hour.

Even before Chertoff formally announced the heightened terror alert in late morning, security had already been tightened around buses and trains that carry millions of commuters daily. In many urban areas, that meant more police officers - with larger guns - and search dogs patrolling transit stations, increased video surveillance and additional monitoring of trash receptacles.

Amtrak, which carries about 68,000 passengers each day, increased patrols and the use of dogs, and also checked tracks for anything suspicious, said spokesman Cliff Black. The job is easiest along the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak owns and controls nearly all of the track between Washington and Boston, he said. But in other areas, the railroad is working closely with the freight companies that own the tracks, as well as local law enforcement.

"We can't do it alone," Black said.

Officials also asked passengers to help. At a news conference in New York, Gov. George E. Pataki said city police were working closely with law enforcement and transit authorities in neighboring states and that state police were riding the region's commuter trains.

"People are not staying home. They are using the subways. They are using the trains, and that's as it should be," the Republican governor said. "But people should be more alert, more vigilant, more aware of their surroundings."

New York's subway system carries 4.5 million passengers on an average workday, the most of any system in the country. More than 2.5 million people use that city's buses every day.

In California, subway cars were stopped just before entering the tunnel under San Francisco Bay and were swept for unattended bags. In Washington, Metro station restrooms were closed and special teams used bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol stations and trains.

Around the Capitol, already tight security was increased slightly yesterday.

Most members of Congress were out of town yesterday, but the verbal response was swift. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee called the attacks "cowardly acts against innocent people."

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said the United States would respond to the attack on a key ally "not only with shock and grief, but with unity, resolve and commitment."

Others used the bombings as an opportunity to lobby for more money and tighter security for mass transit. Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said he plans to push for more funding for the Department of Homeland Security when Congress returns next week.

Chertoff said his department was just finishing an extensive review and would issue recommendations on mass transit soon.

"I wouldn't make a policy decision driven by a single event," Chertoff said. "I think our priority here is to get to the bottom of this, make sure we understand what the dimensions of this set of acts are, who perpetrated them, determine whether there are any lessons in intelligence that we're going to gain from this, and then move forward."

Sun staff writers Siobhan Gorman and Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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