Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two Thumbs Up for Washington DC's Security Theater

The curtain is rising on a new act of security theater, a branch of the performing arts that is depressingly familiar to those of us who live or work in the Holy City of Washington. Already we can't enter most office buildings without doing the security dance at the metal detector and x-ray machine. Now, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has announced that Metro Police will start conducting inspections of passenger's bags (Metro Transit Police to begin bag inspection program).

The Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) will begin a bag inspection program and look into passengers’ bags prior to them entering the Metro system in an ongoing effort to protect Metro riders, employees and facilities. Officers will be inspecting bags for explosive devices.

This is really a roadshow version of an original production that began in New York City shortly after the July, 2005, London Underground bombing. So far, terrorists have conducted bomb attacks in the subway systems of London, Mumbai, Madrid, and Paris. But none of those cities routinely screen passengers, since it just isn't feasible to do so given the large volume of passengers and the vast size and interconnectedness of urban metro systems. What's more, metro stations aren't suitable for conducting screening in an area away from concentrations of passersby, therefore they have no possible defense against suicide bombers. So those cities choose to accept the slight risk that one out of their millions of train passengers will be a bomber.

New York City, even though it has not experienced a subway attack, started to inspect its passengers at random and on a voluntary basis, despite the pointlessness of such partial measures. It also provides a high-profile police presence in the subway as a presumed deterrent to would-be terrorists. SWAT [Studly Wear and Theatrics] cops hang out on the subway platforms modeling the latest tactical gear and making like they're on high alert for signs of al Qaeda activity, whatever those might be. Reportedly, that kind of performance makes people "feel better." Not me, and not anyone I know, but supposedly somebody, somewhere.

Metro Police have put up Frequently Asked Questions about the new bag inspection program on their website (MTPD Security Inspection Program FAQ), some of which I've repeated below. As a public service, I've added a few questions, in bold italics, that should be frequently asked but aren't.

Q: Why is Metro doing this?

A: Metro is inspecting passenger bags to deter terrorist attacks by increasing our potential for detecting explosives or other hazardous material into the Metro system and to disrupt the ability of terrorists to discern a pattern in our security measures. The effort aims to increase awareness of the overall safety of passengers and employees in the Metro system and to ensure continuous operations during periods of heightened security in the National Capital area.

Are you sure Metro isn't doing this simply to follow the fashion set by NYC? The London metro system doesn't do this and they've actually had bomb attacks.

Q: How will the bag inspections be conducted?

A: A select team of trained officers may inspect passenger carry-on items prior to their entering the rail system or boarding a Metrobus. All carry-on items of passengers who enter a Metro facility will be subject to these inspections.

In general, customers will pass through inspection points prior to passing through a Metrorail faregate or boarding a Metrobus (before paying a fare). A customer whose items have been randomly selected for inspection will be taken to the inspection site off to the side. The customer will be asked to open his or her carry-on item. An officer will visually inspect the contents of the item. The inspection will be limited to searching for explosives and other items that may be harmful. Areas of bags that aren't capable of concealing an explosive will not be opened. If an explosive detecting canine is present, the customer may be asked to have his or her carry-on item sniffed by the canine. If the canine alerts for the presence of explosives the officers have legal authority to search the item, per United States v. Place.

In the event that neither the visual inspection nor the canine sniff reveals the presence of explosives, the customer immediately will be allowed to go on his or her way. Customers who aren't selected for an inspection will be allowed to enter the Metro system immediately. Customers who refuse to cooperate with the inspection will not be permitted to enter the Metro system with their items.

So, if I'm not permitted entry with my bag because I didn't cooperate, what's to stop me from just emptying the contents of the bag into my coat pockets and coming back? And if I want to keep my bag with me, does that mean I won't be permitted to re-enter that station ever again, or just for the rest of that day, or for an hour, or what? How would you know if I went to another station? It doesn't seem like you could enforce that ban on re-entering metro.

Q: What types of bags will be searched?

A: All types of carry-on items are subject to inspection including, but not limited to purses, briefcases, backpacks, gym bags, suitcases, shopping bags and boxes.

Why search only bags? Don’t terrorists sometimes carry bombs on their bodies, like in those hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, a few years ago? Can’t a bomb intended for use on a metro train or bus be small enough to carry under a shirt or coat? Didn’t the bombs used in the London Underground attacks weigh just a couple pounds each?

Q: How long will it take to do a bag inspection and ensure it's thorough?

A: The time it takes to inspect a bag will depend on the size of the bag. In general, it should only take about eight to 15 seconds to inspect an item such as a briefcase or backpack.

So, then, I take it you won’t use an explosive trace detector to see if a passenger has explosive residue on his person or effects? Can a brief visual inspection of a bag really be effective? How do you guys know what a bomb looks like anyhow, especially if it's inside an innocent object?

Q: What type of reaction do you expect to get from customers?

A: We expect customers to voluntarily comply.

Don’t you expect a lot of them will turn around and leave the station rather than be hassled? That’s what I would do. Or maybe pass my bag to a friend who wasn't being singled out for inspection. Or, if I was a terrorist, I'd have an accomplice enter the station first and let me know if it was clear for me to proceed with my bomb.

: How did you determine when and where to do the bag inspections?

A: The Metro Transit Police Department will begin randomly inspecting passengers' carry-on items before they enter the Metro system when circumstances warrant heightened vigilance, such as an elevated security threat. However, we will take steps to ensure that there will be no discernible pattern to these inspections. The dates, times and locations of security inspections will not be announced in advance.

Doesn’t that decision have a lot to do with available funding? Is Metro getting a Homeland Security grant to pay for the manpower needed to do this program (the way New York City does)? If so, are you really sure this is the best use of those funds?

Q: Can't you do this system wide?

A: Metro is not looking to conduct inspections at all stations at all times.

But if you don’t do it system-wide, what’s to stop a terrorist from walking out of one station and then entering another one? In the downtown area, many Metro stations are only a few blocks apart. Now that I think about it, how could you conduct inspections in Metro Center unless you covered all of its many train lines and platforms and entrances at the same time? Nothing short of comprehensive would be effective.

Q: Will this really make a difference?

A: Yes.

Are you sure about that? I don’t see how it could actually deter or prevent a bombing attack in the Metro. It seems like something that's intended to make people think that Metro is on top of this terrorism threat, when really Metro is just as vulnerable as ever.

Q: What took so long for you to decide to do this?

A: We have been carefully watching developments in the transit industry, communicating with our counterparts in other systems and evaluating recommendations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There is a growing consensus within the industry that programs such as this are a good idea, and the DHS touts it as a Smart Security Practice. We believe the time has come to offer our customers this additional layer of protection. With the upcoming elections and inauguration, this is the right time to launch this effort.

No, really, what made you decide to do this?

Q: Will customers be required to pass through inspection points?

A: No. Signs will be posted to inform customers about the inspection point. Customers may choose to avoid the inspection point and not enter the Metro system.

Doesn’t that one fact alone pretty much make this bag inspection business an exercise in futility?

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