The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) came to Cambridge Wednesday night to explain to citizens gathered at the Central Square YMCA a plan, currently underway, to test sensors in Red Line stations that would, if they prove effective and are widely deployed, detect a biological terror attack which, they asserted, was a real threat for which our country should be prepared.
The sensors are already deployed in Harvard, Porter and Davis Square stations, measuring background information in order to develop a baseline. In about a month - official declined to state exactly when - DHS will, during nighttime hours when the T is otherwise closed, release bacteria into subway tunnels, run trains as if it were normal operation, and assess whether the sensors can detect the release. DHS officials, joined by public health officials representing the state, Cambridge, and Somerville, took pains to describe the ways in which this plan has no risks. The bacteria being used - Bacillus subtilis- is found routinely in the environment, will be released only after killed, would be harmless even if alive, and will only be released when no people are in the subway, they said.
Officials were unable to provide information about the cost of this exercise, and have not followed up with promised information as of posting time. Despite repeated assurances that no Cambridge dollars were being spent on this - it is funded by federal appropriations - Claude-Alix Jacob, Chief Public Health Officer for the City of Cambridge, acknowledged that Cambridge City staff are supporting this work and their salaries are not being reimbursed by the federal government.
DHS officials were also unable to provide information on the likelihood of a biological threat, nor were they able answer questions about whether these sensors would have been effective to detect any of the "credible threats" disclosed by security officials in the last decade. Instead, they repeatedly cited the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway system though they acknowledged under questioning that that attack used nerve gas and thus would not have been detected by these sensors.
MBTA Police Chief Paul McMillan noted that terrorist attacks are one of the things that "keep [him] up at night." He acknowledged, in response to a question, that during the extensive public hearings about MBTA services and costs, no citizen raised biological terror attacks as something on which the MBTA should be spending more resources.
Public health officials carefully explained their involvement in this exercise, noting that if an attack were to occur, they would be expected to respond, thus preparedness was, in their view, a requirement. They also noted that even an incorrect report that a biological attack was underway in the T would cause the system to be closed. These sensors, should they prove to be effective in testing and then be widely deployed, would eliminate the harm that would come from those false positives, they asserted. Those officials repeatedly deflected questions about financial tradeoffs, declining to talk about any other public health threats that were being ignored. As Massachusetts State Epidemiologist Dr. Al DeMaria noted, the funds supporting this testing were appropriated by Congress for this purpose and this purpose only, discussing alternatives was pointless.
In response to a question, DHS spokesman John Verrico noted that terrorists "win" not only by inflicting casualties but by inciting fear that causes changes in the American way of life. But when asked if a DHS presentation intended to raise fears of an attack and allow the government to act in ways that might not otherwise be acceptable was a sign that the terrorists had won, he said that that did not represent his views.
Comments on the document and test plan may be submitted to MBTATest@hq.dhs.gov by the close of business on June 15, 2012.
The a question and answer sheet and environmental assessment, prepared by the DHS, are displayed below.