Friday, August 9, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: TSA not just for airports anymore

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 9, 2013

Don’t be surprised if you see the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at a ballgame or concert near you. The TSA isn't just for airports anymore.

TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals, sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and other mass transit locations around the country.

"We are not the Airport Security Administration," said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We take that transportation part seriously."

With little fanfare, the agency best known for airport screenings has vastly expanded its reach. Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) and the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, TSA has broad responsibility to enhance security in all modes of transportation nationwide. TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program is part of a nationwide transportation security program that serves all modes of transportation.

VIPR teams can be deployed at random locations and times in cooperation with local authorities to deter and defeat terrorist activity; or teams may be deployed to provide additional law enforcement or security presence at transportation venues during specific alert periods or in support of special events.

TSA routinely conducts thousands of VIPR operations each year in transportation systems nationwide.

The TSA has grown to an agency of 56,000 employees at 450 American airports. The VIPR program now has a $100 million annual budget and is growing rapidly; increasing to several hundred people and 37 teams last year, up from 10 teams in 2008. TSA records show that the teams ran more than 8,800 unannounced checkpoints and search operations with local law enforcement outside of airports last year, according to the New York Times.

TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving VIPR teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolsters public confidence.

VIPR searches outside of airports haven't yet been challenged in court, but it's likely, civil liberties groups say. "I think expanding the program will be problematic politically and legally," said Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Any courtroom battle over VIPR searches will pick apart the Fourth Amendment, which bars police searches unless there's "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed.

But the TSA claims "administrative search authority" to conduct random checkpoint searches of passengers and baggage at "surface transportation venues" without probable cause, according to TSA spokeswoman Kimberley Thompson.

"The administrative search does not require probable cause, but must further an important government need, such as preventing would-be terrorists from bringing an explosive device onto a crowded commuter train," Thompson said.

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