Adam Rountree  /  AP
A Port Authority police officer keeps a watchful eye on pedestrian traffic in New York's Grand Central Terminal Thursday.
updated 3/15/2004 9:15:40 AM ET 2004-03-15T14:15:40

Sweeping baggage checks for passengers on the “very open” U.S. rail transit systems are impractical despite the specter of terrorist threat, a high-level Bush administration official said Monday.

“I don’t know that we ought to apply the same strategy that we’re using with the airlines,” said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security. “Is it practical to have magnetometers for everyone who gets on a subway? Is it practical to search every bag that goes on?”

On NBC’s “Today” show, he said authorities may increase “targeted inspections” of passengers’ belongings aimed at protecting the 4 million people who ride public transportation in the United States each day.

Hutchinson, appearing on morning television news shows, sought to counter accusations by some congressional Democrats that the administration has not committed sufficient money to protection of the U.S. rail and transit systems.

“First of all, we’ve invested $115 million in grants to the transit and rail industry,” Hutchinson said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said the federal government is working closely with state and local governments, adding, “We’ve done a great deal of security and more needs to be done.”

Security bulletin issued
In the wake of the terror attack that killed some 200 and injured hundreds more in Spain, the Department of Homeland Security last week put out a bulletin advising local law enforcement authorities and transit agencies to be vigilant. They were asked to consider additional surveillance and to look out for unattended bags and backpacks, said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

On Monday, Hutchinson was asked whether the United States faced a greater threat of attack in the wake of the bombings in Spain.

“No not at all,” he replied. “We would certainly alert the American people through increasing the alert level if the intelligence justified that and at this time we’re monitoring it very closely, but there has been no change in the threat level.”

The government’s alert status currently is at yellow, or elevated, the midlevel spot on the five-stage terror alert warning.

The attacks in Madrid were “a wake-up call, a horrific wake-up call,” Hutchinson said on CBS’s “The Early Show.”

Terrorism threat level remains unchanged
“In terms of the threat level here in the United States, we do have historic reporting that there are threats to mass transit systems,” he said, “but the current threat reporting does not justify any increase in threat level.”

“We have just naturally, as a consequence of this (Madrid attack), increased security in our transit systems, in our rail systems here in the United States as well,” he said. “We’ve increased law-enforcement patrols, we have increased the presence of explosive detection teams, the public announcements alerting the thousands of passengers to be on alert for unattended bags.” Hutchinson added that other measures, which he said he could not discuss, are pending.

“Whenever we have very open transits system that it is difficult and challenging to have a 100 percent secure guarantee of safety,” he said. “We are working very hard to accomplish that.”

Hutchinson told CBS that administration officials “need to have people that are keeping an eye out” for unattended bags and packages, and to report suspicious activity.

In the wake of last week's attack in Spain,k Amtrak increased patrols of its police force and canine units, spokesman Dan Stessel said. Electronic surveillance of bridges and tunnels was intensified, he said. And the company reinforced its message to Amtrak employees to report suspicious activities to police.

“That gives you another 20,000 sets of eyes,” Stessel said. The railroad is continuing to review information received from the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration, he said, but there has been no credible threat against Amtrak or other railroads.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said authorities had moved to increase security in city subways and commuter trains. Additional uniformed personnel were assigned to subway stations and trains, on the Long Island Rail Road, PATH and Metro-North Rail Road trains. Bomb sniffing dogs will also be in use around the region.

The Federal Transit Administration also has sent technical teams to transit systems to assess their vulnerability and given them grants for training their employees.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Watching Homeland Security


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