With the frenetic summer travel season just around the corner, here’s a little warning about a road hazard you might not expect: a checkpoint staffed by Transportation Security Administration workers.
The so-called VIPR teams (shorthand for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) are special TSA units that search — and sometimes detain — travelers at bus terminals, railroad stations, subways, truck weigh stations and special events such as NFL games and political conventions.
Peter Ireland, an entrepreneur based in Seattle, contacted me after hearing about VIPR teams in Emeryville, Calif., checking random passengers and luggage.
“This agency is out of control,” he told me. “It’s a cancer in the body politic.”
He’s hardly alone in that assessment, or in the suggestion that VIPR teams are turning America into a de facto police state. But the VIPR teams are on such shaky legal ground, and as you’ll see in the video below, many travelers can and do simply ignore the roadside checkpoints because there’s no firm legal basis for them. (Note: While these aren’t VIPR checkpoints, they operate in a similar way, so I thought they were worth including.)
Annoying and ineffective?
The real problem with the TSA VIPR teams isn’t that they needlessly delay travelers, but that they may be unable to stop a real act of terrorism. Consider the recent “emergency” on a Chicago train, where VIPR agents believed they’d found a dirty nuclear device.
A TV photojournalist who just “happened” to be at the scene captured the whole event, which ended up being a false alarm. Turns out one of the passengers had just wrapped up a medical test, which led to higher isotope readings.
By the government’s own reckoning, these teams are useless. The latest Inspector General report questioned the effectiveness of the teams, noting that surface transportation security inspectors are not trained in behavior detection, have no training in passenger screening, are unable to detect explosives, and are not law enforcement authorities.
Ready for your VIPR check?
This upcoming Memorial Day holiday, as you take to the roads and railways with your own family, you may see a VIPR team asking you to pull over and submit to an inspection. I’ll be honest: The activist in me wants to keep driving. But as a practical matter, I pull over, I’m polite to the government employees and I answer all of their question honestly. My family doesn’t want any trouble, and chances are, neither does yours.
But as the inspection station disappears in my rearview mirror, I wonder: When will I say no? When the kids are old enough to deal with Dad getting hauled off and detained? When the TSA agents’ questions get too personal? Maybe when I’m asked to walk through a portable full-body scanner that’s set up along the road?
I think we can all understand having a checkpoint at the border or in front of a military base, but at a random truck weigh station? To check nine-year-old Amtrak passengers as they exit the train in Savannah, Ga.?
Maybe this summer it’s time to say enough is enough.
Note: Effective June 1, I’m moving my TSA coverage to TSA News, a blog I co-edit. I’m returning to this site’s main mission every Wednesday, with more consumer advocacy coverage.