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London Attacks Highlight America's Vulnerabilities

Thrust by the London attacks back into a 9/11 mindset, U.S. counterterrorist officials were more than a bit concerned that none of its intelligence services had as much as an inkling of the London bombings, and that hardly a pittance has been spent on protecting U.S. ground transport.

By Our Correspondent Philippe Gélie

Jule 9, 2005

Le Figaro - Home Page (French)    

Washington: A railway bridge with one side facing toward southeast Washington [D.C.] causes the greatest anxiety for counter-terrorist specialists. Overhanging a little-frequented street just steps from the Capitol, it sees the daily passage, in plain sight, of railcars carrying dangerous chemical material.

It would be enough to blow up the bridge at the correct time with a booby-trapped truck to endanger the lives of 100,000 people in less than an hour, with the elected officials in Congress and the judges of the Supreme Court on the front lines. This catastrophic scenario motivated Democratic Senator Joseph Biden to propose a bill to prohibit the transit of highly toxic products in the downtown area. It is just the latest in a long series of warnings in regard to the weak points in the American security system: failings that are so exposed that they are likely to give ideas to the terrorists.

The attacks on London caused more than a sincere outburst of sympathy in the United States, a reminder of the black hours of September 11, 2001. They kick-started a healthy introspection on American unpreparedness vis-a-vis this type of attack. Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, immediately raised the threat advisory level for trains, subways and buses from yellow (elevated or significant risk of a terrorist attack) to orange (high risk). But not for the air traffic. Without any "specific, credible intelligence indicating an attack," it was only "common sense" to make this "reasonable adjustment." Inspections and patrols of public transportation in large cities were stepped up yesterday.

While admitting the difficulty of making 225,000 kilometers [140,000 miles] of roadways entirely safe, Americans had other reasons for being startled by the events in London. Prior to the London attacks their intelligence services once again predicted nothing. The FBI and the CIA were feverishly plunging into their files yesterday to try and find any trace, alarm, or information that may have escaped them. In particular, the U.S.government’s priorities for waging the battle against terrorists are being seriously faulted: while focusing all of its attention and resources on air transport, Washington has neglected its even-more exposed vulnerabilities.

Since the 2001 attacks, $18 billion has been injected into air safety, compared to hardly $250 million on surface transport. This year alone, 90% of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) budget of $5.5 billion is earmarked for reinforcing the safety of aircraft and airports, while about $100 million is planned for railway infrastructure.

People responsible for the rails, however, evaluate the needed funding at $6 billion. Senator Biden, again, proposed a law to immediately multiply the budget by twelve, to $1.2 billion. With 26 million passengers per day, trains and subways in the United States carry 16 times more passengers than aircraft. According to the Rand Corporation, over the past five years 181 terrorist attacks against public transport took place around the world.

The concern of American experts doesn’t stop there. Up to now, at 103 nuclear plants around the country in 64 locations, hardly a billion dollars has been invested in safety. A scientific report published last month suggests that of the information processing systems which control electrical supply networks, water purification and distribution systems, dams and refineries are all extremely vulnerable. The Environmental Protection Agency identified 123 chemical complexes in 24 States that constitute a potential threat. Part of New Jersey, the area between Newark and Port Elizabeth, was declared, “the most dangerous place in the country," with 12 million inhabitants within range of 100 potential targets.

Ports also appear to be among the weak links. According to a Congressional investigation, less than 11% of the 4,357 importers are certified by American customs as "secure." As for the checking that is carried out in collaboration with 36 foreign ports, only 18% of containers categorized as "high-risk" ever get inspected.

In Washington [D.C.], after municipal authorities issued a decree against the rail transport of dangerous chemicals, the railway company, supported by the Bush Administration, had the measure reversed by the Justice Department.

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