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Cia vulnerability testing { October 25 2001 }

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October 25, 2001

Security increased after New York subway scares
By James Bone

THE rush of air surging down the platform as the No 6 train clatters into Grand Central Station brings with it more than the usual stench of the New York subway system.
With weapons-grade anthrax in the hands of terrorists just across the river in New Jersey, the stale breeze reminds commuters of the vulnerability of the 722-mile underground railway, which carries almost five million people a day.

“Sure, it frightens me, but you have to move on,” Terry Nemeth, a publisher on his way to work said. “You can’t shut it down. Then they would shut the whole city down.”

The travelling public has been assured that security in the subway system has been tightened — but few details are available. New York did quietly acquire chemical and biological sensing devices in recent years, but it is unclear if they have been put to work on the subway system.

“We’ve had a number of initiatives in the subway system,” Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said. “I’m not going to say exactly what they are for security reasons.”

Passengers do not have to show identification or have their bags searched as they enter stations, and New York has not followed Washington’s lead in removing rubbish bins from the platforms. Extra undercover police have been deployed, and camouflaged National Guardsmen can be seen at high-profile stations such as Grand Central. But the most visible sign of stepped up security is that subway staff have been asked to wear their badges and luminous red vests.

After falling to about half the usual levels in the days immediately after September 11, passenger numbers are now back to normal — perhaps because commuting by car has become so much harder.

But service is now frequently disrupted by “anthrax scares” of suspicious packages, which close down stations about ten times a day. In one case, police discovered that suspicious white powder came from a doughnut someone had dropped on the floor.

Many commuters are clearly rattled — and ignorant of the threat posed by airborne anthrax. “I just take certain precautions,” Carlos Sanchez, a technician, said yesterday as he rushed for work. “I keep my hands in my pockets or I just stand against the wall.”

Al O’Leary, a spokesman for the New York City Transit Authority, said suspicious packages, which once would have ended up in a “Lost and Found”, are now investigated by special teams, who can X-ray abandoned items.

“There has been no consideration of closing the subway down. We carry far too many people and the city’s economy is far too reliant on mass transportation,” he said. “There are no specific threats towards the subway. Nor have there been any specific incidents.”

Nevertheless, the transit authority decided to stop giving details of every scare, lest it fuel panic. “There is an appropriate level of concern among our passengers and our employees,” Mr O’Leary said.

Few, however, know about the “vulnerability study”, conducted on the subway system by the CIA and the US Army in 1966 and kept secret from the public for almost 20 years.

In the test, light-bulbs full of a non-toxic bacterium called Bacillus subtilis variant Niger were placed on the tracks or just dropped on top of subway trains through a grating.Pushed along the tunnels by passing trains, the germs were sucked almost to Central Park from lower Manhattan.

“Dropping an agent package to the roadbed from a rapidly moving train is an easy and effective method for covert contamination of a segment of a subway line with a biological agent,” the report concluded. The germ “is aerosolized and dispersed rapidly by the movement of the trains, penetrating stations and trains”.

The experiment, detailed in Leonard Cole’s book, Clouds of Secrecy, became public in 1975 when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summoned the scientist responsible, Charles Senseney. Asked what an anthrax attack on the subway could do, he said calmly: “Put New York out of commission.”

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