Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Yesterday we learned of a ten month FBI sting that resulted in the arrest of a would-be Metro-bomber. And we learned that safety precautions to prevent track workers and trains from being on the same track still aren’t working as they should. Find out what Metro’s doing to address safety and security concerns, and how DC’s underground system compares to others worldwide.
- David Alpert Founder, Editor-in-Chief, "Greater Greater Washington"
- John Solomon Journalist in Residence, Center for Public Integrity
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, architect Roger Lewis on lighting and how it affects your mood, your performance and your life overall. That's right, lighting.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the FBI arrested a man this week who was trying to participate in a terror plot to bomb the metro. We have the nation's second busiest rail line, and it's clear, an open transit system will always be vulnerable. Our city officials are telling us to be vigilant. Metro is taking steps in several areas including chemical detection and partnering with local police while many of us are asking, what exactly are we looking for? Safety strategies like random searches proved impractical and cement barriers probably wouldn't stop someone from trying to do harm. Of course, we're not the only city in the world facing these issues. We might learn from London or Moscow, cities that have dealt with terror attacks on their subway systems. We'll get an update on what Metro is doing, what we can do and what other cities are doing to keep riders safe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is David Alpert. He is the founder and editor in chief of the website Greater Greater Washington. David Alpert, good to see you again.
MR. DAVID ALPERTThank you. Good to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us by telephone is John Solomon. He is journalist in residence at the Center for Public Integrity, where he conducted a comparative study of security at transit systems in New York, Washington, D.C., Moscow and elsewhere. John Solomon, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN SOLOMONGood to be with you today, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohn, we know our Metro system has vulnerabilities. How does it compare to other major rail systems in major cities?
SOLOMONI think it's right in the middle of the pack. It's clearly a high-value target like New York. Washington and New York are probably the two most attractive subway systems for terrorists for symbolic reasons. And it's done some mediocre things. It -- last year, 10 years after 9/11, they finally got 20 officers to create a special task force that actually goes through those subways and looks for suspicious activity. But you've got probably one officer for every 3 -- 2, 3 miles of tract. So that's something that -- it's a modest gesture. They have five bomb-sniffing dogs they can go around. Again, it's a minimal additional protection against terrorist attacks. But it's like New York City where there are miles and miles of electronic cameras surveying every part of the tracks. And I think the Metro statement yesterday that we are wide open and vulnerable is probably an honest assessment.
NNAMDILondon and Moscow both had attacks on their subways. What are they doing now to prevent a future attack?
SOLOMONGood question. They have large numbers of counterterrorism police now, particularly in London, working the subway system. I bet you the number -- I don't have exact numbers, but there are gonna be a lot more than 20 officers for the size of the system that they have. And they have a lot more cameras around town, which is -- can also create a little bit of controversy in London about privacy. But it does appear that -- you know, all those sort of measures that -- I wanna make one of the point I think is important. All those measures are good for detecting attack that's probably in progress, which is pretty late in the process.
SOLOMONAnd I think the good news here about what happened in Washington, D.C. is that the best prevention is stopping someone in the early stages of a plot. And it looks like the FBI and our government were able to do that. And at the end of the day, winding back the processes, stop someone at the beginning, is a much better way than trying to catch him at the end with dogs or a handful of police officers. So intelligent law enforcement is still the best prevention.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think should be done to make Metro more secure? Or are you satisfied with what's been going on so far? 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. David Alpert, Metro is holding its first meeting of the new security -- Safety and Security Committee. What is new about that?
ALPERTMetro decided to create a special committee that only looked at safety after the NTSB suggested that they split up. Before, there was a Customer Service, Operations and Safety Committee, which looked at both safety and also customer service in operations, obviously. Mostly, you know, I think that this is a little bit of a cosmetic change, but it's certainly good for Metro to make absolutely clear that they're focusing on safety. And Mort Downey, the federal member who's chairing that committee, seems to be a good person to be doing that as well.
NNAMDIMetro is taking a number of steps. What is Metro doing?
ALPERTThey have been -- mostly, this committee, so far, is looking at things like preventing, you know, injuries on the tracks. That's at least, right now, the biggest focus. And Metro has been undergoing some studies. There was consultant who did an analysis of the way that track workers might be afraid to reporter problems, unsafe situations and that sort of thing, like the near miss that happened recently.
NNAMDIYou know, John Solomon, taking into consideration what you said about intelligence being the best way to prevent these attacks before they occur, the fact that there are -- there is such wide camera deployment in London subway system, New York is attempting the same kind of thing, some people would say, should be a no brainer. Or are we waiting for something to happen? Are we waiting for a major event before we get the political will and the money to do that?
SOLOMONYou know, that's a good question. And a lot of the people I talked to back in March when I did my story said, you know, the real truth of the matter is even though subways are probably just as vulnerable and as attractive to terrorists as airlines, subways are sort of been the stepchild or second child of security, which is we put so much more into -- if you go to Reagan Airport, you know what you have to get through to get on a plane. If you go to Union Station or one of the subways -- subway stops along the way, you can get on with relative ease.
SOLOMONAnd I think that most of the security experts think the bigger question is rethinking our security posture as a nation and putting some more emphasis on there. Cameras are certainly gonna be a help, but they're expensive. They sometimes gum up, so you got to have people who can, you know, maintenance them, give them good maintenance. And then you have to have people who can watch all those cameras deployed. If you have them but no one is looking at them, they're not very much good. And so it is a big human and technological investment. It does seem to be a no brainer, but it often comes down to money.
NNAMDIWe're talking with John Solomon. He is journalist in residence at the Center for Public Integrity. He conducted a comparative study of security at transit systems in New York, D.C., Moscow and elsewhere. Joining us in studio is David Alpert. He is the founder and editor in chief of the blog-website Greater Greater Washington. You can call us with your concerns or suggestions for security at Metro at 800-433-8850. You can send us an e-mail to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. David, as far as you know, is Metro planning on implementing something similar to New York, cameras or other monitors?
ALPERTThey haven't had much of a public discussion yet about what they're going to do in this area, but I think that, you know, John made a really good point when he said that the best prevention is having police officers actually investigating people who might want to cause any type of bombing and to arrest them because it is very difficult to catch people once they're ready to do the plot. There are, obviously, a lot of places in the system, and you can't, you know, put security checkpoints all over the place. It's better to have police that are doing investigations.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Sophene in Falls Church, Va. Sophene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SOPHENEHi, how are you doing?
SOPHENEI'm actually a military veteran, and I did work for the center for antiterrorism at some point. My question is, is the FBI method use -- which they use in a lot of places in the country is effective? What I mean by that is they influence to a certain extent someone who then would become a would-be terrorist, then a few months later, they will arrest them. Any person can do similar things with influencing, you know, white supremacists to attack black people or influence anti-Semitic people to attack Jewish people. So, in my case, is that fair for the person, and also is it actually effective because we don't know, actually, the real terrorists? We only know the would-be terrorists.
NNAMDIWell, you know, John Solomon, I was interested to see a comment in The Washington Post reporting on this today in which a Muslim cleric, who I happened to know, says, "Well, if this guy is dumb enough to be drawn into a scheme to bomb Metro, then maybe he should be in jail." I think the issue of predisposition is what we're talking about here, isn't it?
SOLOMONIt is. And now the caller raises a good question, which is, you know, when is it entrapment, and when is it prevention? And in this case, I think it's hard to make an argument of entrapment. This gentleman, according to the indictment, had already made a trip overseas and was trying to acquire chemicals, which we assumed were bomb-making chemicals based on the way the indictment was written. This is a person that had taken additional steps beyond just being -- fomenting, you know, anger at the United States. He had gone, traveled overseas, clearly tried to acquire chemicals. I think that's a sort of person that most Americans would like to see the FBI try to engage in an undercover way and get them off the streets before they harm someone. And, you know, there are some people -- and this came up in the Fort Dix case in New Jersey. Were they really terrorists, or were they lured in? But I think most Americans would prefer to err on the side of safety these days given the magnitude of the threat.
NNAMDISophene, thank you for your call. Here is Dean in Georgetown. Dean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEANHi, Kojo and guests. I just got out of the DuPont Circle subway, which I take almost every day, and I saw a police officer standing in front of the entrance, where the turnstile was. I asked him, "Will this be a regular presence due to threats?" He said, "Well, we aren't -- we don't have enough staff to do that. What about undercover people. We don't have that." And he said, after that, "Well, yeah, I don't want to say, but that's the way it is. Don't expect to see us here all the time at DuPont Circle."
NNAMDIWould you feel safer, Dean, if you -- Dean, would you feel safer if you saw a visible uniformed security?
DEANYeah, yeah. Available uniformed and/or undercover. It doesn't make any difference. Not enough. And DuPont Circle I would imagine...
NNAMDIWell, if they're undercover, you wouldn't know it?
DEANYeah, I know that. So I hope they're there. He said they can't even have enough -- have undercover people there.
NNAMDIJohn Solomon, they don't have enough people to cover all of the Metro stations.
SOLOMONYou know, I think that that's an honest statement by people on the frontlines. It is a question of how many resources can we deploy and what value decisions have people made in the Metro Department, in the Transit Department, but that is the most common thing you heard. When the General Accounting Office did a -- the Government Accountability Office did a study late last fall, the single number one concern they raised which is so much of subway safety has been left to local agencies who simply don't have the budget to do what it takes to really prevent a terror attack. And I think the caller is right. The GAO was overwhelming in that response, and almost every local agency I talk to echo that, which is we'd love to do more, but there's just not enough money in this budget crunch.
ALPERTAnd meanwhile, you know, there have been a lot of federal grants to do things like build barricades around some of our buildings, our monuments, and it seems like there's a lot of money going into security, but that's going into things that maybe create a very visible security presence but don't actually deter people or find, you know, identify the people that are going to cause the bombing and arrest them.
NNAMDIAnd it's also our resident analyst Tom Sherwood's pet peeve. Dean, thank you very much for your call. Here is Ahmed in Silver Spring, Md. Ahmed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AHMEDHi, Kojo. I grew up and spent a lot of time in Israel, and there, at every bus stop and now the new rail system that's been that's in development, there is, you know, armed security guards at every single one. And I wonder what could be a better use of resources and money than providing that kind of safety at Metro stations?
NNAMDIWell, you know, Ahmed, there are two things that pop into my mind when you raised that question. One is we're not there yet, and the other is really for John Solomon. And when you talk about Israel, we're talking about a country and an area that has seen a lot more in terms of terrorist attacks than we have.
SOLOMONYeah, I think that's right. I mean, Israel is sort of on the extreme of seeing bloodshed from terrorism and bombings. But I do think, you know, one of the themes that come up time and time again when you talk to people is a lot of the money we spent after 9/11 -- I think David hit it on the head -- a lot of the things that we've done are sugar pills. They look good. You know, a barrier can be moved by a truck in a few seconds, but we've put them there. And they make us kind of feel safe, but we really haven't done a lot of the prioritization of where we could spend the most money most wisely to try to stop an attack. One of the places we spent really wisely, we've given a lot of money to the FBI. They have hired a lot of counterterrorism experts and intelligence experts. And that's a good investment. I think a lot of the other people -- the security experts say the next wave of investment has to go in infrastructure around specific targets, and we need to do a better job prioritizing and spending the money more wisely.
NNAMDIAhmed, thank you for your call. John Solomon, thank you for joining us.
SOLOMONGreat to be with you.
NNAMDIJohn Solomon is journalist in residence at the Center for Public Integrity, where he conducted a comparative study of security at transit systems in new York, Washington, D.C., Moscow and elsewhere. David Alpert, a lot of people are still unclear about something. Can you take photos on Metro?
ALPERTYes. The policy on Metro is that it is fine to take photos. I think that there are restrictions for -- if it's something that's gonna be for professional purposes, just a permit. But people are welcome to take photographs.
NNAMDIAre there random searches in D.C. on Metro?
ALPERTI believe Metro hasn't continued to do that. They were talking about doing that. But those sorts of things really are a good example of, you know, John's sugar pill. I mean, a random search will just -- you know, someone can always just turn around and not go into the station where there's a random search. So it's something that maybe looks good and makes it look like an agency is doing something but doesn't really address the problem.
NNAMDIThis was a tough week for Metro besides the terrorism plot, which I guess you shouldn't put under the category of tough week. It was fortunate that the individuals apprehended, if indeed this is what he was planning to do. There was another near miss with workers on the tracks who were not told of a track change. Weren't those problems supposed to be addressed? Fixed?
ALPERTIt is disturbing that these things are still happening. And I guess the good news is that we're finding out about them to a greater extent than before because one of the problems previously was that these things weren't getting reported. Metro -- this morning, I actually just heard a presentation on this issue that I alluded to you earlier about workers not feeling comfortable reporting problems. And the good news is that they've -- that they are identifying this as an issue and hopefully, next, we'll take steps to solve that problem.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of the blog website, Greater Greater Washington. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, architect Roger Lewis joins us on lighting -- lighting in your workplace, lighting in public spaces and theaters and then restaurants. How does that affect your mood or your performance at work? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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