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Posted at 4:15 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Metro discusses security, freedom

By Robert Thomson

Tom Downs, one of the new Metro board members, led an overdue discussion Thursday of issues stemming from the transit authority's decision in December to have transit police and the TSA inspect riders' property.

Most of the board members participated. They didn't resolve anything; there was no vote on any aspect of the rider inspection program. But they did talk about it at length, and in doing so, many acknowledged that the public has an interest in how it is protected from attacks in the public transit system.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles and Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn joined the discussion, stating their reasons for creating the program and explaining why they believe the inspections do not violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

Taborn noted that he has a small force of officers charged with doing a lot of protecting on trains and buses and in stations and parking areas. In his view, the passenger inspections extend the reach of that force. "The goal is to add unpredictability" about police presence and tactics that would have the effect of disrupting a potential terrorist plot, he said.

Taborn said the inspections are similar to what people submit to when they enter the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, or a museum on the National Mall. "This measure is no different from what you went through when you came into this building," he told the board members, referring to the bag X-ray machine and metal detector through which visitors to Metro headquarters pass themselves and their property.

Sarles noted that several other transit systems, including New York's, engage in similar activities, and that the inspections are "one additional piece of what we do here."

Among the issues he said he considered before allowing the chief to proceed with the tactic in December: people's constitutional right to be protected against government intrusions, a need to avoid queuing of riders at station entrances, the upcoming holiday season -- sometimes a draw for terrorists and the desire to introduce an unpredictable element in security that might disrupt a terrorist's plan.

"I made the decision to do this," he said.

To some board members, that's clearly good enough. They say they don't question decisions made in the name of security. Any aspect of personal liberty can be hurled into that bottomless pit, also named "They must know something we don't."

Other comments from board members got into more thought-provoking questions about how to protect the rights of riders while giving the general manager and the police chief enough flexibility to deal with a security crisis.

The December inspections were conducted in the absence of any credible or specific threat to the transit system, according to the police. Sarles noted Thursday that "this is not a static situation." Can the board frame a set of guidelines for ensuring riders' freedom that will cover all eventualities?

Most board members said they were at least willing to talk about these issues with riders. That in itself would be a step in the right direction. In guiding Thursday's discussion, Downs showed that it's possible for people with very different views on the reasonable boundaries of police power to have a reasonable conversation about it.

If the board could come up with policy guidelines on protecting people's rights during security operations, what would you want to see included?

By Robert Thomson  | February 10, 2011; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, bag inspections  
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Next: Are Metro's records responses reliable?

Comments

I'm more concerned with how Metro is run and paying more to park and ride than to drive into dc and park.I don't mind metro using devices to screen for explosives but searching me or my bags is out of the question. Metro is not safe due to mismanagement and greed by the executives, not by terrorists. More people are hurt by theives so use security to safeguard trains,parking lots and stations. No where in the US does it cost so much and take so much time to get from one area to the next as it does on Metro in DC. Why?

Posted by: kbserenity | February 10, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I think that the Metro Board will regret their decision of having Michael Taborn call the shots. Bag checks at the Verizon Center, this is done to ensure that folks do not bring in alcohol or food that will cut into the profits of the owners of the Verizon Center. Scanning at the Smithsonian (and all Federal buildings) - post 9/11 paranoia.

The silly bag inspection treats every Metro rider as a terrorist.

What the DC Metro Board fails to understand is that the presence of the Federal subsidy system maintains a group of Federal employees riding the Metro system. Most of us have passed more stringent security tests than any TSA airport/Metro checker is capable of passing. We wish to maintain a safe commute.

Do you want eyes and ears? The Federal employees are your eyes and ears. Treat us like terrorist and we will commute into work by cars (my agency offers free parking, how nice is that?).

If you want our Federal subsidy, you need to treat us better than terrorists. I, for one, will drive into work if Taborn requires me to submit to inspections.

Posted by: nidomhnail | February 10, 2011 8:19 PM | Report abuse

"Taborn said the inspections are similar to what people submit to when they enter the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, or a museum on the National Mall."

The difference, though, is that at the Verizon Center and at the museums EVERYONE gets inspected, and the inspections are ALWAYS conducted at EVERY entrance. You don't get in without being inspected, and thus the inspections really are ensuring the security and safety of the patrons of those places. Terrorists aren't deterred by "adding unpredictability" to their plans, they're deterred by being stopped cold at the door.

But on the Metro system, the random searches at random stations are just harrassing the customers, they're not deterring terrorists one bit. They aren't adding any unpredictability to the terrorist's planning process, because I'm sure by now every terrorist cell's planning manual for a Metro attack has just added one simple step at the beginning of the process: Before sending the guy with the bag of bombs into the station, send another guy in first to see if they're checking bags that day. If they are, go back out and tell the guy with the bag of bombs to go to another station. Hell, there's probably one within walking distance.

Sarles is an engineer, he should have figured this one out while he was still an undergrad. Mining engineers long ago discovered the concept of sending a canary into the coal mine first. If terrorists are smart enough to figure out how to make a bomb, aren't they smart enough to figure out how to send a canary into a coal mine?

Bottom line, this inspection program is not increasing the safety of the system one iota. It's just harassing innocent passengers.

Posted by: FeelWood | February 11, 2011 8:36 AM | Report abuse

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