The Sword of Damocles

What is the most visited site in Washington, DC? The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum? The Museum of American History? The Capitol?

None of the above. Union Station is by far the busiest place in DC, with more than 29 million people walking through the marble Beaux-Arts landmark annually.

I go through Union Station twice a day, from train to subway, marveling every time at the beautiful barrel-vaulted gold-leafed spaces. Mr. Smith arrived in Washington here. Train 173 crashed into the station here. Hannibal Lecter met Agent Starling here.

People comforted that the U.S. hasn't seen a domestic attack since 9/11 are deluded by a false sense of security. When terrorists failed to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993, they waited eight years to finish the job. They are determined, calculating, and patient.

Meanwhile there was Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, attacks on the Moscow metro in February and Madrid communter trains in March of 2004, the coordinated attack on London's transit system in July of 2005, and the series of bombings on trains in Mumbai on July 11, 2006.

It's the sort of thing one can't help but think about, and I'm not the only one. A colleague at work confessed that she panics when the Metro stops dead beneath the Potomac coming in from Virginia, which the subway does often, wondering if it's another attack. I carry a flashlight, hankerchief, and bottle of water in my backpack at all times.

I think about this daily, because Union Station is a prime location for a terrorist incident. My intent here isn't to give anybody ideas. It's obvious to any casual observer. I hope that by discussing these things, steps could be taken to prevent a catastrophe.

An incident at Union Station would cripple not only the District of Columbia, but affect the entire East Coast.

Union Station serves the north-south Amtrak line, and is the terminus for commuter trains into Virginia and Maryland. About 30,000 people, myself included, ride Maryland's MARC lines, which are mainly used to commute to and from Washington. About 15,000 commuters take Virginia Rail Express each weekday.

Union Station is also on the Red Line, Metro's most heavily traveled route. The DC Metro system boasts the longest escalator in the western hemisphere, and stations so deep that one is accessible only by elevator.

The system serves two airports -- BWI and National -- and thousands of people carry backpacks, carry-on bags, and often large suitcases. Every day, Union Station and it's rail and subway tributaries are teeming with tens of thousands of people carrying luggage.

What could be inside those bags?

When there is a bomb scare, which happens now and then, the commuter trains are swept and hundreds of people are herded onto the platform. During the evening rush hour, this is a huge crush of people. We're sitting ducks for deadly intentions.

Aside from paralyzing the DC and regional transit systems, if the breeze is right a biological or chemical or dirty device could direct a toxic cloud over some of the most important real estate in town.

Given its vulnerability to Washington and the people who work there, how is the security at Union Station? Not good enough, and certainly not as visible or rigorous as what I've seen in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or in Europe.

Sure, there are video cameras all over, which aren't much of a deterrent and only tell you what happened after the fact. They didn't stop a deranged guy with a gun from running through four floors of the Capitol until he was cornered and tackled by staffers in the flag office, although the Capitol Police assured the press that they watched the whole thing on video.

Law enforcement officers often walk through Union Station with dogs, more for show than detection.

A considerate terrorist would put a device in the new blast-resistant trash receptacles (left) that have recently been installed all over the place. These containers are designed to deflect a blast upward (right). Some security experts suggest that if explosive were actually detonated the receptical would act like a mortar, propelling the heavy lid up to the concrete ceiling, which can and has collapsed in the past.

The peculiar device to the right is a sniffer machine, more accurately a chemical/biological detector. Back during the first Gulf War, the military equipped vehicles with cones to filter air as they travelled through Kuwait and Iraq. Paper filters were removed from the samplers and taken to a laboratory for mass spec/gas chromatography, which would reveal whether troops were exposed to a chemical or biological agent. This same technology was deplayed for the 2000 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

The obvious problem with this approach is that you don't get a warning in realtime, but only learn what happened in the past. The easiest way of thwarting the sniffer is simply to pull the electrical plug.

Realtime chem/bio detectors exist, and have been installed in Senate and House office buildings. If they are deployed in Union Station as well, why waste resources sending a guy to collect paper filters from this thing? It's difficult to have a lot of confidence in Incompetence, Inc.

I don't know all the answers. I'm not a security expert. But I do know that we deserve better than half-assed 15-year-old technology.


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