Senator slams train security

By DAVID E. REYNOLDS, UPI Correspondent  |  April 8, 2004 at 9:34 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- A U.S. senator described nightmare scenarios of terrorist attacks on American passenger trains in a plea to amend a new bill that seeks to toughen laws against attacks on mass-transit systems.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Del., questioned that a new bill, proposed this Tuesday by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Al., does not go far enough to prevent future attacks on America's trains.

"Seven cars crashing at 150 miles per hour will make a wreck on an airplane look like a game. And nobody listens to me," Biden exclaimed during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the wake of last month's train bombings in Madrid, the committee held hearings to discuss how a new bill calling for stronger penalties may deter similar attacks in the United States.

"I think this is the place where America will see significant casualties if we don't get smart," Biden said. He brushed aside concerns that he should not expose the vulnerabilities of America's mass-transit systems by saying, "Al-Qaida knows this. The only people we've been hiding it from are the American people."

The hearing on mass-transit safety began just hours after the conclusion of Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission. As investigators struggled to understand possible failures of the past, legislators took on the challenge of preventing future terrorist attacks that may lie ahead.

America's current laws are not "adequate to respond to a terrorist attack on America's mass transit system," Sessions said. He underscored the need for his new bill, saying, "Thirty-two million times a day, people board public transportation systems."

The new "Railroad Carriers and Mass Transportation Act of 2004," would increase penalties for the worst attacks on America's rail systems. It would also eliminate some inconsistencies between laws relating to airline safety and those for America's other mass-transit systems, like trains and subways.

"Those who wish to attack this country should know that we will no longer distinguish their acts based on what means of mass transportation they choose to attack," Sessions said.

The bill also proposes to make it a federal crime to "release biological agents or other hazardous materials," on trains. "It's time to put terrorists on notice," Sessions said. "Their actions will be punished."

But Biden said increasing punishment for terrorist attacks is not enough to prevent them from happening. The new bill should go further by making it a criminal offense to carry any weapon onto a passenger train, he said.

After citing laws that ban nail files on airplanes, Biden questioned why legislators are not doing more to create similar restrictions on passenger trains. The proposed bill would eliminate some inconsistencies between airline-safety laws and those protecting other mass transits. But Biden said inconsistencies would still remain.

The danger terrorists pose to America's mass-transit systems is "self-evident and obvious and we're doing, so far, nothing," to prevent it, Biden said.

Increasing penalties to deter terrorist attacks is only one part of what Harry S. Mattice, Jr. of an Eastern Tennessee U.S. Attorney's Office called a "multi-faceted approach" to fighting terrorism. But in his testimony before the committee, he said the new statutes are a crucial part of the process.

The October 2001 Patriot Act improved the federal government's power to stop terrorism, Mattice said. "But there is still more to be done to close gaps in these statutes and make them clearer and less vulnerable to legal challenge," he said.

Mattice voiced the Department of Justice's endorsement of the new bill, saying it would "harmonize the laws protecting mass transportation systems, including passenger trains."

But S. Mark Lindsey of the Federal Railroad Administration said that not all terrorists are deterred by increased penalties for their crimes. Still, he said the new law would do more to combat "a steady drumbeat of terrorist acts against railroads of a lesser magnitude," than those in Madrid.

Mattice said that new bill would do more than just deter terrorists from attacking the United States. By defining statutes more explicitly than the previous legislation, law enforcement would be able to get warrants and arrest potential terrorists. The existing legislation is not specific to modern threats, making it more difficult for law enforcement to act against suspected terrorists. Sessions and Mattice agreed the new law would alleviate this problem.

While Biden's commented on additional measures that should be added to the bill, Sessions mentioned what was left out. The "Railroad Carriers and Mass Transportation Act of 2004," is virtually identical to a law proposed last year. The 2004 bill does not include surveillance provisions that were part of last year's version. Sessions said he was willing to compromise because of the need to pass new mass-transit safety legislation immediately.

The committee also addressed how possible under-funding of the FBI, may be hurting recruitment. A starting salary for an FBI agent with an advanced degree in a big city is $39,000, Biden said. In a private law firm in Manhattan, entry-level salaries are over $150,000, Biden added. "It's never going to be competitive," Biden admitted. But he added that current salaries are "shamefully low." The proposed bill does not address the funding of the FBI and their ability to recruit top people to help fight terrorism.

Mattice said that since 9/11, terrorism has been the top priority of both the Justice Department and the FBI. "Terrorism is first and foremost," Mattice said.

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