Uneasy ride for New Yorkers as terrorism threat lingers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2006, 12:00am

On the same day that London stopped to commemorate the 52 victims of last July's terror attacks, news broke in New York about a foiled plot to flood the city's financial district. It aimed to do so by destroying commuter trains as they passed in tunnels under the Hudson River into Lower Manhattan.

Then, four days later came a savage reminder as to why the threat to public transport in this age of global terrorism can never be underestimated, as 200 people were killed in suicide bomb attacks on the Mumbai rail network.

The threat to subterranean travel post-9/11 is tangible and impossible to underestimate, yet before events in the Indian city unfolded, the perception among New York commuters was that the city was becoming complacent about rising security threats.

Before the Mumbai blast, security on New York's sprawling subway system was widely acknowledged to have tapered off since the immediate aftermath of the London bombings. Whereas last July the subway's 4.5 million passengers were greeted with bomb detectors and bag searches at the entrances to key stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, one year later many of the inspection tables have gone and patrolling officers are at a minimum.

News last week of the Mumbai attacks piqued New York officials into what seemed like a renewed sense of precaution: the subway was once again flooded with a police presence and the bag searches resumed. Yet for many it felt like lip service.

'Every six months they'll put extra officers on duty down here for a few weeks,' said daily commuter Tim Greenan. 'It's a gesture that's meant to make us all feel better, but it doesn't make me feel any safer. At the end of the day extra policemen on a train won't be able to stop a suicide bomber. Nobody would.'

Such grim resignation may now be a reality of underground travel in most major cities, yet in New York the situation has been complicated by political brinkmanship and suggestions that the most recent moves to beef up security have an ulterior motive.

There has been a sense of outrage after recent news that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is cutting defence funding for both Washington, DC, and New York, with the latter set to lose US$83 million from its budget.

As the DHS looks to distribute a total fund of US$1.7 billion across a wider catchment of states and cities, fortifying them against terror attacks and natural disasters, New York officials are claiming they have been grossly shortchanged with a budget now reduced to US$125 million. New York politicians have been quick to voice their dissent, after their cutbacks saw states such as Georgia benefit by a 40 per cent funding boost.

'Other states that have very few problems got an increase,' said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of the funding policy. 'Somehow this administration thinks Georgia peanut farmers are more at risk than the Empire State Building. Something is dramatically wrong.'

Mr Schumer said that for every US$7 spent on airline passenger security, just over one penny was being spent on mass transit or rail passengers.

New York's Mass Transit Authority, which oversees control of the subway, has spent US$880 million since 9/11 on security measures ranging from hiring extra police officers, bridge and tunnel officers, security fencing, lighting, barriers, radios, bio-chemical detection systems and protective gear.

Yet is it merely a coincidence that since the latest security funding cuts were announced, authorities have unveiled three different terrorist plots involving New York? Since the US$83 million evaporated, New Yorkers have been alarmed by the unearthing within one month of three diabolical scenarios. Before the plot to flood Manhattan's financial district, there was news of a 2003 attempt to release cyanide gas in the subway system that had been narrowly foiled. Last week came the news that the vast, nine-metre slurry wall at Ground Zero was also a target, with its destruction again leading to potentially disastrous flooding.

The New York Police Department has angrily denied the suggestion that terror risks are being exaggerated in an attempt to cause a rethink on the part of the DHS. The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Republican Peter King, said: 'The DHS and the administration have declared war on New York City.'

Taking the brunt of criticism is Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, whose 'peer review' scheme decrees where and how the department's US$710 million in Urban Area Security Initiative grants are spent. Congress' decision to allocate 14 per cent less money for all of the grant programmes this year has resulted in a tighter wallet, yet the DHS argues that it has reorganised its criteria to focus on where potential risks exist, instead of focusing only on the larger populated cities of the US.

So-called 'terror targets' that have been awarded extra security boosting include a Kentucky bourbon festival and an 'Apple and Pork' festival in Illinois.

'A sheriff in a small town in the Rockies shouldn't be deciding how Homeland Security funding is spent,' Mr Schumer said.