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Nicole Gelinas
Through a Tunnel Darkly
Governor Pataki should shine a searchlight on MTA security.
19 July 2005

It took Governor Pataki nearly four years to figure out that his appointees had screwed up reconstruction at Ground Zero. This year, Pataki finally named his chief of staff, John Cahill, to supervise reconstruction of the site personally. But at Ground Zero, the actual damage had been done long before, on 9/11. That’s not the case at Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state entity that runs Gotham’s terror-target subways. Must it take a catastrophic attack for Pataki to realize his failure here—and to appoint a capable, trusted aide to slice through MTA bureaucracy and smash some heads now on transit security?

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s hard to tell if there’s even been a screw-up. Since 9/11, the subways haven’t been hit by terrorists—and good security, by definition, is supposed to be secret. In the MTA’s latest capital plan, for example, the authority has only this to say: “Due to the sensitive nature of the security planning effort, the . . . capital program identifies a single budgetary reserve for $478 million, which will be used to progress the remaining 33 large-scale initiatives identified by the terrorist experts’ analysis.” The “program project listings” page is blank.

The MTA says: Trust us. But this is the opaque authority whose major projects—construction at the 2 Broadway headquarters, for example—have been shot through with misplaced priorities, overspending, and corruption. And this is the authority that still has nearly $600 million for post-9/11 security left over from its previous capital plan, due largely to the derailing of a contract with the US Army after nearly two years of planning and negotiations.

For a glimmer of the real truth, outside observers must rely on former officials willing to talk—and on our own common sense.

Let’s start with the latter. There are three steps to post-9/11 security: gathering intelligence to prevent attacks, protecting critical physical assets from attempted attacks, and minimizing the loss of life after an attack. The NYPD and the feds, not the MTA, are responsible for the first step. Empirical evidence shows that the MTA can’t handle the other two.

Exhibit A: Critical Assets. In January, a mysterious interloper (police believe it was a homeless person, but he or she has never been found) set fire to a signal room in Lower Manhattan, destroying tens of millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable equipment, and knocking out service on the A and C lines for a half-million riders. A similar incident happened a decade ago; the MTA thus had years to beef up security, and didn’t. And the fire-setter has never been found, because the MTA still doesn’t monitor its critical infrastructure with cameras or other technology. If one homeless man could knock out service accidentally, terrorists who care more about economic impact than about loss of life could hit several such sites and knock out service on much of the subway for weeks to months, one former NYPD transit-security expert told me.

Exhibit B: Minimizing Loss of Life After an Attack. Acronyms usually aren’t deadly, but “HEET,” which stands for “high-entry-exit turnstiles,” could be. They’re death traps and would be illegal on private property (though the MTA doesn’t have to comply with city building codes). Why? At stations where the only entrance and exit is through two or four HEETs, people must make their way through the tall metal turnstiles one at a time. Children and old folks can’t push the heavy revolving gates without help—and handicapped people are plain out of luck. In an emergency, hundreds of people would stream off a train and into the station for a quick exit—but they might crush each other up against the HEETs in a panic. There is no other way out—there’s nothing to jump over, and you can’t push the revolving gate any faster than one by one. You might think that the MTA, after 9/11, would have quickly dismantled the HEETs in favor of the old turnstiles, as people can jump over them or run through them. Instead, the MTA has spent the last four years doing the opposite: assiduously dismantling the old, relatively accessible turnstile entrances in favor of more HEETs.

“I do not think [the MTA] should be entrusted” with security, said Louis Anemone, the former NYPD chief of department, who served as the MTA’s security director from just after 9/11 to early 2003, when he was fired in an unrelated dispute. “They have been negligent, maybe criminally negligent.” In Anemone’s view, the NYPD and the FDNY should be given responsibility for critical security functions at the MTA—now.

So what must be done?

Anemone rightly set out to protect critical physical infrastructure after 9/11. Under his direction, the MTA made a careful list of what would be easiest to attack, and which attacks would have the most catastrophic impact on a fragile, interconnected system. Anemone then set out to find “realistic solutions.”

A consultant led him to the US Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (Cerdec) in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Cerdec is the Army’s information-tech and integrated-systems center—but since 9/11 it has also advised municipal officials on how to beef up homeland security and counter-terror efforts with army-level technological and physical infrastructure.

The Army welcomed the MTA challenge. After extensive study, the Army said it could vastly improve MTA security for about $250 million. Army contractors would strengthen some aging tunnels. They also would deploy military technology to safeguard critical infrastructure—using cameras, sensors and physical barriers to mark and control access to tunnels, signal rooms, power transformers, train yards, and ventilation shafts. The Army even won approval from the DoD to deploy proprietary technology throughout the MTA system.

Expert Army contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, would have built a “command center” for the MTA, to coordinate the agency’s disparate technology with the new technology so that security officials could monitor critical spots —like entrances to underwater tunnels—in the system.

The Army also would have taught the MTA how best to train its employees on clear responsibilities and protocols in an emergency. For example: When, and how, to shut down the subways after a suspected attack? Who does a conductor notify if he sees a suspicious person or package? Can, or should, a conductor ask to check someone’s bulky suitcase? Right now, MTA employees have no idea what to do.

The Army, not the MTA, would have managed the contracts associated with the construction and deployment of the system, an important and valuable service: the Army has experience “on large, complicated projects,” Anemone said, and would have had “much more leverage over contractors” than the MTA has. “The contractors would have a lot to lose” in terms of future contracts with the military “if they screwed up,” he says.

But the deal fell apart after Anemone left, in part because the MTA balked at giving the Army so much control over its assets and contract procurement. Further, MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow told the New York Times last week that the Army proposal relied on unproven technology and was “not applicable to a system as large as ours.” So after nearly two years’ worth of careful study, the MTA had to start in 2003 from Square One.

The MTA will import at least one element of the discarded Army strategy into its future spending: The authority said last week that it soon will award contracts to install a “high-tech” closed-circuit camera system to track intruders in tunnels, according to the Daily News. But the MTA can’t say when construction on the project will begin, or when it will be complete. And the contracts will be subject to the MTA’s labyrinthine procurement process, meaning commuters must pay not just in money but in more time. This step could have been streamlined under the Army’s contract-management plan, and the Army, for all its fabled procurement inefficiencies, would likely have policed cost overruns better than the MTA.

Anemone doesn’t know when the Army contract would have resulted in an acceptable level of post-9/11 security, or how much it ultimately would have cost (he believes the Army’s initial $250 million would not have covered everything). But he is sure of one thing: “We would be a lot closer” to having a safe system under the now-discarded proposal.

As it is, during high-alert periods nearly four years after 9/11, hundreds of police officers must now expend resources—better spent on intelligence work—doing what technology might do more effectively. For example: The MTA pledged after the London Tube attacks to deploy at least one police officer per train indefinitely during rush hours, at a cost of nearly $2 million each week. But trained civilians doing continuous spot-checks of cameras in stations, trains, and tunnel entrances, in communication with more strategically placed officers on the ground and underground, might better cover suspicious activity. Worse, Anemone says, despite the extra manpower deployed during high-alert periods, there are still “enormous” security breaches. “The public deserves better.”

Refreshingly, Anemone doesn’t insist resignedly that the MTA is just too big to protect. “There are 468 stations,” he points out. He thinks the MTA could pilot a screening system for passengers with large packages at one busy station, for example. There would be no harm done in trying it out, to see if it slowed access to the system so much as to be impractical, and to see how passengers reacted. “Give [the token clerks] a safety function” supplemented by technology, he says, since they don’t sell tokens anymore. Impossible? Maybe— but don’t say so until you’ve tried it.

And as for Kalikow’s dismissal of the Army plan as “unproven technology:” a vastly changed world needs radically new technologies; they must be proven somewhere. Why can’t the MTA, in cooperation with a high-tech division of the military, help drive essential practical research? Until the MTA can find a permanent, integrated solution to a problem so complex that even the military found it a groundbreaking challenge, security will be inconsistent, ineffective, and even more expensive than it might be, as politically connected consultants and contractors win contracts piecemeal on discrete projects.

In a system that transports 4.5 million people a day, security can never be perfect. But it certainly could be better—with some responsible anti-terror leadership from the governor.

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
A Tale of Two Speeches
More . . .
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
How to Avoid Fiscal Derailment
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