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    Putting N.J. Guard in PATH stations is political ploy    

Thursday, May 17, 2007 By MIKE KELLY
 
PATH trains Hudson & Manhattan RR Hudson TubesSoldiers from the New Jersey National Guard took up positions Wednesday at area PATH stations. They are armed and in uniform. From the look of things, they seem ready for action. But is this the best way to deploy these troops?

That uncomfortable question is being asked privately by some at the Port Authority. But so far, no high-ranking official will voice any sort of public disapproval. The reason is politics. But should we be playing politics with homeland security?

The Port Authority operates bridges, tunnels and airports. Politics drives its heart and soul, though. And how National Guard soldiers came to patrol PATH stations has as much to do with politics as security concerns. The story begins with Governor Corzine meeting New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer during the winter. Both men said they wanted to show they could cooperate on homeland security programs.

Conceptually, that wasn't a bad idea. New York and New Jersey are linked by more than just bridges, tunnels and names that begin with "new." Thousands of commuters travel between the two states. Indeed, some of the 9/11 hijackers who brought down the World Trade Center lived briefly in Wayne, Paterson and South Hackensack. But is the deployment of 40 National Guard soldiers from both states, at a cost of $2.4 million a year, the most efficient way to join forces in battling terrorism?

The Port Authority police are not exactly the Keystone Kops. The 1,600-member force is considered among the best-trained in the nation at a wide variety of jobs, from handcuffing thugs to putting out airplane fires and guarding against terror attacks. Since 9/11, the force has upgraded all manner of counter-terror skills, with increased training and new equipment. Several Port Authority officers even volunteered with U.S. intelligence agents in Afghanistan and Pakistan to track down alleged al-Qaida operatives. Will the addition of 40 National Guard soldiers make any difference to the solid security job Port Authority cops are already doing?

Officially, the New Jersey National Guard is taking cover from that delicate question. "If the Port Authority believes that our presence is going to help them, then we're going to do anything to help," Guard spokesman Kryn Westhoven said. He described the Guard soldiers as "a set of eyes and ears for the Port Authority police." That's all? At $200,000 a month, those are expensive eyes and ears.

The PATH system is clearly vulnerable. A study in December by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute concluded that a small amount of explosives could rupture PATH tunnels under the Hudson River. And in July, intelligence agents uncovered an overseas plot to set off backpack bombs on a PATH train and flood the tunnels. But the Port Authority says the soldiers are not assigned to special tunnel duty. They will patrol just 13 PATH stations and will not inspect tunnels or perform passenger screening. Police will do that.

Port Authority spokesman Marc Lavorgna said the Guard assignment is "not based on a threat. It's a pilot program." But a pilot for what? Since the 9/11 attacks, the New Jersey Guard has been stretched thin. More than 6,000 of its 8,300 Army and Air Force members have reported for duty in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Guantanamo Bay and at nuclear power plants in South Jersey. Why are they now assigned to PATH stations? This is not war. It's politics.

Copyright © 2007 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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