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February 22, 2008
Amtrak to Start Passenger Screening
Amtrak is going to start randomly screening passengers, in an effort to close the security-theater gap between trains and airplanes.
It's kind of random:
The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates. Officers will randomly pull people out of line and wipe their bags with a special swab that is then put through a machine that detects explosives. If the machine detects anything, officers will open the bag for visual inspection.
Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.
In addition to the screening, counterterrorism officers with bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms and walk through trains, and sometimes will ride the trains, officials said.
This is the most telling comment:
"There is no new or different specific threat," [Amtrak chief executive Alex] Kummant said. "This is just the correct step to take."
Why is it the correct step to take? Because it makes him feel better. That's the very definition of security theater.
Posted on February 22, 2008 at 12:17 PM
• 62 Comments
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Amazing how "random" always seems to select the buxom for extra screening and pat downs.
There is a fundamental breakdown in the entire process that subjects people to arbitrary inspection with little recourse.
I'm supposed to take Amtrak from Boston to Eugene and back in April, and I plan to keep a close eye on how lame security is this trip. Unfortunately, given how lame it was last summer (e.g. ICE stopped the train and did a sweep for undocumented aliens just outside Toledo, and the DEA guy in Chicago who couldn't grok that the guy claiming to speak no English *did* understand the word "passport," so clearly somehow this proved that the guy was a drug smuggler who cleverly just didn't have any drugs on him), the bar is already pretty high.
The biggest, real vulnerability isn't on the train (unlike an aircraft), but rather in the rail system on which it runs, right? I mean, you can't crash a train into another WTC.
A real vulnerability would be to (rather easily) derail a hazardous-chemical-hauling train in a major metropolitan city by doing something like throwing an unattended switch or putting something on or damaging a rail--hypothetically, of course.
Shouldn't we be putting our efforts into securing our infrastructure, i.e. rails, pipelines, chemical plants, bridges, rather than this idiotic direction?
Clearly, this isn't to beef up security, it most certainly smacks of ulterior motive: slowly, creepingly, desensitizing the population to the presence of machine-gun-toting, jack-booted, brown-shirted, thugs.
Hello Guantanamo, here I come.
Strange (but nice) that refusing the security check gets your ticket refunded. Wouldn't it be nice if you could get airfare refunded simply by refusing to deal with the TSA!
I have two thoughts.
Firstly (@Curves) I've always thought that if you're going to have 'random' stops/security screens/whatever then they should be enforced to be genuinely random. For example, screeners could have a little electronic geegaw that they pressed a button on for every passenger which then lights up a 'screen this passenger' light with a fixed probability driven by the usual PRBS underpinnings. That way the gropable, the dark skinned etc. don't get disproportionately selected.
Secondly, I'd be quite amused to see Alex Kummant put on the spot by someone litigious suing Amtrak for failing to adequately protect them in the past by not operating screening. Under those circumstances he'd either have to prove the screening was necessary, and pay out, or not necessary and win the case. Given the huge tort payouts in the US and no shortage of ambulance chasers it isn't an impossible scenario.
I take a train into 30th Street station, in Philadelphia everyday. Not Amtrak, but I walk right past that area. I tried to explain to some people the other day about how ridiculous this was and how it was just "security theater", but the response was that we need to "balance security and privacy". I felt like tearing my own hair out in frustration. Another issue not mentioned here is that these police will be walking around with automatic weapons. I don't get that. They are supposed to be peace officers, not military personnel. What do they need automatic weapons for? The increasing militarism in this country is out of control.
One of the obvious differences between a train and a plane is that the train usually has many more stops between the start and finish of the journey.
So, are Amtrak setting up screening at *every* stop on the journey, or just those stops close to a TV camera crew?
> Why is it the correct step to take? Because it makes him feel better. That's the very definition of security theater.
Bruce, unless you have a degree in mindreading, don't pretend to speak to the guy's emotional state.
One does not need a specific new threat ("they will blow up train X next tuesday, around tea time") to undertake precautions against known attack profiles. Perhaps you heard that bad guys have brought explosives on board trains and buses. Perhaps you have also heard of the concept of "deterrent".
The question of whether any particular precaution is warranted in terms of cost/benefit is absolutely fair. But your kneejerk labeling of everything as "theater" just causes kneejerk dismissals like ... er ... this comment.
>Clearly, this isn't to beef up security, it most certainly smacks of ulterior motive: slowly,
>creepingly, desensitizing the population to the presence of machine-gun-toting,
>jack-booted, brown-shirted, thugs.
It's been done before.
But will the trains run on time?
I remember a number of times running into Penn Station to catch a train at the last minute. If they don't search last-minute arrivers, the system is easily gameable. If they do, they make people miss their trains, showing that their statements about not causing delays are just lies.
I'll bet they don't compensate passengers for wasted time after they force the passenger to miss a train.
Arguably, there have been more successful attacks on train systems than on airplanes: the Tokyo gas attacks, London and Madrid bombings, etc. I'm no fan of what TSA does, but we should be doing something to secure trains.
Random baggage screening doesn't seem like the right thing to do, at least as described, because the rules would effectively be arbitrarily enforced. I like the idea of police officers patrolling trains. That seems like the kind of step that commenters on this blog regularly ask for: alert security personnel who do behavioral profiling rather than inconveniencing everyone.
Really, why couldn't this work for airports? Forget having security screening lines. Just lock the cockpit doors and put all of those checkpoint security people to work patrolling the corridors and planes and looking for suspicious behavior, just like a beat cop. Solves the problem of bored security people chatting at checkpoints and would even help improve emergency response to medical emergencies or petty theft. Scan luggage for bombs and let that be it.
"I remember a number of times running into Penn Station to catch a train at the last minute. . ."
Better not try that anymore! Running towards machine-gun-toting paramilitary, is not a good idea.
Besides, I might be standing near you and I certainly don't want to get hit with excessive spray those things will produce in a crowded, confined place.
> One does not need a specific new threat...to undertake precautions against known attack profiles.
What attack profile is being defended against here? If you are a bomber with a backpack full of explosives and the screenings really are random, then you *might* get pulled aside or you might not. You have an excellent chance of getting on the train. If you do get pulled aside, you can just refuse and try again later.
Furthermore, what are they screening for? Every time I've encountered this kind of screening, it is cursory. No where have I even seen mentioned what police would be looking for in people's bags? What if some cop just doesn't like a book I'm reading or mistakes a piece of homemade electronics as a bomb? Do I get arrested?
This really is just theater. It serves no real security purpose, causes unnecessary inconvenience, but provides people with a false sense that the authorities are "doing something".
> One does not need a specific new threat
Exactly! Just remember that millions of travelers board their school buses daily without a single backpack being examined for explosive devices... Someone better start thinking about children!
A "SIGMA SIX" quality control...
but drugs smuglers know how to defeat such statistical analysis: by sending many at once.
What are the real benefit?
Come on people! This is good news! Now no one will be able to hijack a train and crash it into the pentagon!
"I remember a number of times running into Penn Station to catch a train at the last minute"
Good thing you weren't Brazilian, and in London.
C'mon now, even OBL know that nobody takes AMTRAK.
@The other Alan
Shouldn't we be putting our efforts into securing our infrastructure, i.e. rails, pipelines, chemical plants, bridges, rather than this idiotic direction?
You'd probably run out of people before you could guard every bridge, pipeline or train track.
It would be effectivly trying to guess every possible "movie plot". It actually makes far more sense to have well trained law enforcement who can "catch the bad guys" . The problem from a political POV is this tends to not be very visible.
"Arguably, there have been more successful attacks on train systems than on airplanes: the Tokyo gas attacks, London and Madrid bombings, etc. I'm no fan of what TSA does, but we should be doing something to secure trains."
This is what's called "begging the question". You state a fact, then a conclusion, but there is no logical connection between the two.
Yes, there have been more successful attacks on train systems than on airplanes. But the fact remains that you're more likely to get killed by lightning than by terrorism in any civilized western country. Doing nothing more than what's already being done to secure trains looks like a perfectly reasonable and sustainable method to me. What's more, even if you can show that we should be doing something to secure trains, that does not mean that we should be doing airline-style passenger screening.
I used to live in France. Anyone who's flown through France knows that French airline security is quite thorough but also fast. They check everything they need to but don't overdo it, they avoid the theater that their American counterparts constantly fall prey to, and they're quite polite. France has also been dealing with terrorists on their own soil since long before the US cared much about the whole idea. And yet, there is absolutely no passenger screening of any kind in French train stations.
The US needs to stop being so frantic and stop assuming that all solutions must be homegrown. Look at what other countries are doing, and emulate the best. Random passenger screening in train stations is neither necessary nor cost effective nor desirable.
"It would be effectivly trying to guess every possible "movie plot". It actually makes far more sense to have well trained law enforcement who can "catch the bad guys" . The problem from a political POV is this tends to not be very visible."
Well, my point is: the bad guys who would perpetrate something against the infrastructure AREN'T ON THE TRAIN and won't be getting on the train.
All I know is, as Bruce has pointed out in the past in this blog, is that it would be very easy and would have very low risk to attack the infrastructure. The guys on the train just like most of what's being done by the TSA, does very little good for the cost.
And as far as political visibility: you've proven the point that most of what's being done is for sheer visibility, a la "looky what we're doing to 'protect' you.
One of the few things trains still have over airplanes as a means of travel, given that Amtrak prices have risen to more or less parity and that of course the trip takes much longer, is the lack of irritating security theater.
Well, now I officially have no reason to take Amtrack ever again.
This is a shame. One of the things I've especially enjoyed about Amtrak these last few years is the lack of security theater hassles.
In fact, the only stupid security I've ever encountered with Amtrak is that if you travel through Minot, ND, the Border Patrol gets onto the train while it's stopped and goes around harrassing passengers at random. This does not seem like a terribly effective tactic for a number of reasons, one of them being that since this is a long stop, a lot of passengers have temporarily left the train to smoke, or get some fresh air, or buy a newspaper.
For the 2008 holiday season, there will be HO-scale figures of screeners and police armed with automatic weapons, available at hobby and toy stores near you.
Since the article says "The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates," I'd guess that it'll be limited to stations where the boarding gates are actually the only route to the train, so as to not make it look any sillier.
Note for those unfamiliar with Amtrak: At the vast majority of stations, there's no barrier at all between the platform and the outside world. As long as you have your ticket and aren't planning to check any baggage, you can go straight to the train without passing any Amtrak employees along the way. (In fact, most of the smaller stations are designed so as to encourage this.) Even here in Portland, OR, which is a fairly major stop, you could do this.
Off the top of my head, the only stations I can think of where this would work would be Boston, NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle.
> What attack profile is being defended
> against here? If you are a bomber with a
> backpack full of explosives and the
> screenings really are random, then you
> *might* get pulled aside or you might not. > You have an excellent chance of getting on > the train. If you do get pulled aside, you can > just refuse and try again later.
Or fire the device in the crowded security line. Been done before.
This is why I don't get the threat. We don't have mad bombers blowing up malls and bus stops and police stations. I continue to ask: What is the domestic rail threat supposed to be?
@Stephen T "What do they need automatic weapons for? The increasing militarism in this country is out of control."
Don't be a sheep. Arm yourself. Even the odds. Be thankful that in this country it's not only the government minders that can own guns.
Oh, and for the record, that's not really an empty threat. I've taken a couple of Amtrak trips in the last year, and as a Bostonian the Amtrack is always tempting when I take trips down to New York. The price is very prohibitive, but the bus experience is obnoxious enough that I at least think about Amtrak when I have to.
(I'll give them this -- the trains are a very comfortable ride, with way more room than you'd ever see on a bus or plane.)
But, if they're going to drink the security theater kool-aid now, I'm not setting foot on one again.
And another thing: I wonder if Amtrak could get funding for the maintenance it keeps having to defer if it describes the infrastructure issues as "dangerous flaws which could be exploited by terrorists"?
This is actually at the request of several airline CEOs. They believe they're about to lose some business to Amtrak because too many people are pissed off at the TSA security theater, so they've asked Amtrak to help them narrow the gap. Since Bush appointed Mr. Kummant specifically to "starve the beast" and dismantle Amtrak (except for a few potentially profitable Northeast lines that will go to favored donors), he was more than happy to do a favor for some of his fellow CEOs. The added security is just an extra benefit.
Clarification: When I listed "Boston" as one of the stations where access to the platform is only through the station, I meant South Station. I have belatedly remembered that Amtrak stops at other places in Boston, and I've never been off the train at North Station or Back Bay.
None of this was needed 80 years ago and we don't need it now. All we need is some general with some guts and an army to kill all of our enemies Tamerlane style.
Amtrak has seen an increase in volume that gets attributed to people discouraged from using airliners anymore due to the extra hours of waiting pointlessly.
The trains do run on time. Now, for the random few, the train will leave on time but they won't be on it.
So, those who gave up on flying, and are now discouraged from relying on the trains, what is next?
Buses. When Greyhound sees ridership going up, DHS will have to start making random raids on bus stations, complete with machine-gun-toting commandoes and explosives detectors.
@Petréa Mitchell: ``As long as you have your ticket....''
Is this true for Amtrak? On Metro-North (local outfit, NYC to New Haven, Connecticut) you don't even need a ticket. Just get on, and when the conductor comes around, he'll sell you a ticket then and there. At a noticeable markup, true...
I probably could have stated my position a little better. Rail stations and subways have been attacked in the recent past. Since they are places where lots of people congregate, it seems reasonable to assume that they would be attractive targets in the future.
The question is: do they require more security or not? You argue that they don't since the frequency of attacks is fairly small. It seems to me that taking reasonable precautions to keep the frequency small is worthwhile. For example, locking cockpit doors seems like a simple precaution that improves security.
It sounds to me like Amtrak has some of this right, and some of it wrong. I agree that random searches are a bad idea and TSA security theater is unnecessary. That isn't the only part of the steps Amtrak is taking according to the linked article. They also want to up foot patrols in the station and on trains. That seems like something we should encourage since this approach improves the ability to react to a variety of emergencies rather than just narrow, "movie plot" threats.
This is a bit of a tangent, but since you brought it up, I hadn't found French airport security too impressive when I flew through Paris. The security area was too small for the volume of passengers and was understaffed. After crossing the security checkpoint, they searched us again (going through our carry-ons by hand) before boarding the airplane. I also found the staff to be pretty rude. Seemed about equal to the TSA to me. I found it especially remarkable because otherwise, I found traveling in Europe to be exactly as you described other than that experience. Perhaps that was just an anomaly; I'll reserve judgment until the next time I fly to France.
According to Amtrak's page on purchasing tickets, here:
"In certain limited circumstances, where other purchase options are not available, you can purchase and/or pick up your ticket onboard."
Not sure exactly what those circumstances would be, but they'd have to include a train stopping at a station when the ticket counter was closed. (Which often means the entire building is closed. It happens on the overnight trains; one of the reasons the small stations don't force you to go through the building.)
The reason the French system works so well isn't related to its procedures for discovering terrorists but its procedures for handling them once they've been discovered. The French immediately throw up their hands in surrender and then begin to sob profusely about their lack of courage.
The terrorists take one look at the Frenchmen and, feeling embarrassed that they're not attacking the typical worthy targets of innocent women and children, immediately hand over their bombs and go away.
"They also want to up foot patrols in the station and on trains."
I've been to countries where machine-gun armed soldiers -- with buddies in tow draped in ammunition -- are walking the streets, train stations and elsewhere "for your protection".
Intermingling the security apparatus with those who it is supposedly "protecting" is supposed to be one of the nastier things our official enemies all do. We all know that when the shit hits the fan, the enemy isn't going to be discriminating, and so-called rapid response is meaningless when you can empty a sub-machine gun in a few seconds or a canister of nails riding an explosive shockwave can waft over a large group in milliseconds.
That some people want to recreate these situations in the USA is deeply saddening. Take the useless armed guards and their implicit threats and escalations and shove them. Out of sight is best, but into school and productive wealth-creating jobs would be better.
Joe's comments about not passengers not being screened in France is not entirely true. I lived there as well and there are occassionaly bomb sniffing dogs on the international trains, but this usually happens once the train starts moving and you can't get off.
I don't really think this is the same thing as forcing everyone to have their bags searched and get the TSA anal probe.
If a dog detects something, I think it is probable cause for them to ask to look in your bags.
The reality is, whether you like it or not, our state of mind as a nation is that we are 'at war' with the boogy man. He could pop up at any time and when people are scared, they get paranoid.
Whether or not there is any real threat is arguable, but the fact remains that the mentality of fear is present, and until it's gone, paranoia will get worse and conversly, our willingness to give up our freedoms and privacy will erode.
...so can hotels, restaurants, taxicabs, etc. also demand to search their customers as a condition of service ??
Is there now any legal limit to such searches ?
I'm trying to imagine how the handful of Amtrak police officers available to support the California regional / statewide trains are going to run a checkpoint. If they're all at the same station at the same time, you can forget about emergency response to rail incidents in a 300+ mile radius. There goes your infrastructure protection, too.
I seem to recall that most passenger train accidents are the result of rail crossing issues and decaying rail infrastructure. A few more pennies thrown at track surveys, track inspectors and rail crossing upgrades would save a lot more lives.
Wait! I know! Let's metal-detect and X-ray the WATER underneath key bridges for highway and rail links? While they're down there, they could have a real engineer inspect for damage and recommend repairs; which is supposed to happen routinely but often doesn't.
I can't recommend putting running water on the terrorist watch list, but it's a thought. I mean, look at Katrina.
AMTRAK has enough issues trying to get more passengers to ride the rails without riding the passengers as they try to board a train.
>This really is just theater. It serves no real security purpose, causes unnecessary inconvenience,
>but provides people with a false sense that the authorities are "doing something".
I'm not sure it is really security theater because no one, at least no one I know on the train, is worried about terrorism. We had a few TSA types at the San Jose station a while back, standing around not even looking like they were doing anything. Later, on the train, people were going out of their way to comment on how badly run this federal agency was.
No, in this case you have to look to Congress, especially those members who have been trying to kill Amtrak subsidies (iesp McCain). The same, mostly Rep, Congrespersons who pushed for train horns at every level crossing, even in the middle of the night in dense urban areas, despite overwhelming evidence that it is having no effect on crossing safety. They're deploying TSA lackeys here for the same reason.
Follow the money and it will take you straight to Detroit, and big automakers protecting their turf. They did the same thing back in the 40s here in the Bay Area, buying up inner-city light rail lines and manufacturing crises until they were able to dismantle the trains and sell more buses.
"The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates,"
So how do you verify that the screeners actually are screeners. Otherwise this could make it rather easier for someone to stage a mass shooting at a train station. (Especially one which is a "gun free zone".)
Going back to planes the hijackers of Air France 8969 gained access to the plane by claiming to be police and initially behaved like police.
I don't remember having to show my ticket before boarding in NYC or Boston, but I seem to recall in DC, they had people who glanced at your ticket as you walked onto the platform.
Last year, I took Amtrak to DC twice. Of those four rides, we were delayed 3 times. Twice, we passed a broken down Acela! One of the three delays was because a train in front of us stopped to pick up the Acela passengers. Another was problems with the overhead lines. Third time we waited for a connecting train that was delayed. Since those experiments with Amtrak, I've gone back to flying.
That's not entirely correct. At Gare Du Nord in Paris, there's one platform which is shielded off from the rest of the station and is equipped with an xray machine and metal detectors. The platform from where the Eurostar train to London departs. Go figure.
However, it's not uncommon to see various metro stations in Paris patrolled by heavily armed people with machine guns. I've always wondered what the machine guns were good for. Making sure there are at least 10 deaths when someone finally decides to fire one of those things?
Amtrak has been under pressure from the TSA to start airline-style passenger and luggage screening, which would absolutely destroy Amtrak for good. If this is the step he needs to take to prevent being forced to take a worse one, then that's what he has to do.
This is another one of those things where people can't understand common vs uncommon risks. Even with the various terrorist bombings on rail systems in Europe and no real security, trains are still an order of magnitude safer than private autos on a per-passenger-mile basis. Obviously it'd be nice if we could stop terrorist attacks, but we'll save more lives simply getting people out of their cars onto trains even if those trains do get bombed every now and then...
My local "train station" is a bus-stop style shelter beside the track. Sometimes there are as many as 10 or 12 people waiting for the train there. Will Amtrak station somebody there to screen our luggage, or will the screeners only be at major train stations? If the latter, what's to stop terraists from getting on the train where they know they won't be screened?
Security theater at its worst.
Why would any terrorist bother with getting on the train at all? Read your history. In the past when trains were deliberately wrecked, it was usually done with a derailment (e.g. the 1939 City of San Francisco wreck). A bomb could be placed under the tracks (at a bridge) from the outside much easier, and if killing as many as they can is the object, this seems to be a much more effective strategy. Screening passengers will do nothing to stop that, just increase the inconvenience to travelers.
A note: William gets the prize for the dumbest, most bigoted comment I've ever read here.
In Chicago, from time to time (that is, when HS declares an "orange alert") the light rail commuter trains coming into the downtown area are stopped so that the outsides of the trains can be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs.
The dogs do not, however, sniff the passengers. Which is probably because the trains are usually so packed with passengers there would be no way for the dog to get on. Someone needs to train bomb-sniffing Chihuahuas!
What I find fascinating is that, as several people have suggested, there is in fact a suicide terrorist model for attacking trains as in London and Madrid.
Notice however, that it has taken at least 2 years for this reponse to a demonstrated attack mode, yet it took only hours to clamp down on liquids on planes to prevent an impossible attack scenario.
If there was ever better proof that there is a minimal, if not wholly absent threat, it is the disjunction between the response to the real and the response to the imaginary.
The common factor, however, is to emphasise control.
The biggest improvement that has been made to the train stations security in France has been to replace all public trashbins with transparent plastic bags, and to deny access to the underseats luggage space so that it's not easy to hide a bomb in the train. On top of that, the train company asked the passengers to volunteer looking for odd/lost luggage.
Another security measure is to have police force patrol a few trains, providing proximity security while looking for the odd luggage.
There's also the occasional screening is present, mostly in trains that would cross the borders of europe. (On other trains you would rather see agents screening the passengers for tickets before they are allowed to board, which has more efficient economics)
Some of the apparatus used against pickpockets (cameras and such) can be diverted for other purposes.
No set of measure that could not be individually defeated, but the whole of them do somewhat enhance security in trains.
As for the military patrols, better have those armed guys handle the 'theater' side of things while the police forces are doing "police stuff".
While I did not read the last essays/books, I do not generally agree with this site comments on 'security theater'. One could think that measures as described in this blog article will have few results. This does not means they won't have any effects. E.g. going through a fence is not difficult, but still it's harder than if there was no fence at all.
For example simple screening should be enough to deter amateurs. Professionals would have to assess the perimeter screening, and as such would make them more likely to be noticed by other security devices/forces.
Some part of your defenses have to be visible and obvious.
Wow! No one in his right mind would believe these devices and methods will prevent or deter criminals intent on crime.
There are too many other ways to slip through. Moreover, these token carry-on
checks may set a precedent and lead to the same type of illegal passenger friskings now going on at the airports.
Whoever bought this idea should be questioned by Congress.
work for greyhound and heard that Tsa have been trying to reach the head office. This is no amtrak or airplane station. they are going to need the army here. Two days ago one of our none tsa guards got jumped by 3 homeless people then quit. another guard from another shift got fecies thrown at her. They couldnt just put up a show here. i can see it now Tsa agent robbed by two thugs outside greyhound station. this could be interesting.
So here it's the end of 2010... what updates? Has Amtrak stopped this foolishness? Can I still travel within my country without government intervention?
This set up at airports would make everything run much more smoother by getting rid of security choke points then have officers walk up and down the hallways and gate areas physically.
Security check points or *choke points* are a great place for either a shoot out with police officers or some smart alack launching a firecracker in the concourse in which case the Liberal Media will report it as *explosions* making people think it's bombs.
Instead of locking down that area they'll lock down every airport in America to make sure there is no other *explosions*.
Many of the Liberal BS comments are sickening on here.
I am surprised after the Pan am flight 103 explosion back in the 90s people weren't afraid of flying back then wondering if their plane was next.
The first George Bush should've had us go to war with Libya back then since Libya refused to hand over the terrorist until many years later when there was sanctions against them.
Sanctions are where you block trading and goods from coming thru which will hurt the economy.
Before Pearl Harbor the US was putting up sanctions against Japan hurting their economy and I don't blame the Japanese for deciding to take a few pot shots since Pearl Harbor was not too far off their route.
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