The TSA wants to be everywhere in 2013 — here’s why we shouldn’t let it

Photo by Nathan Hansen/
Photo by Nathan Hansen/
When the Minnesota Vikings faced off against the Green Bay Packers last weekend in Minneapolis, the big story wasn’t that the Vikings defeated the Pack to secure a wildcard berth.

It was, strangely, the TSA.

That’s right, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems was patrolling the Metrodome. Nathan Hansen, a North St. Paul, Minn., attorney, snapped a few photos of the agents before the game, and broadcast them on Twitter.

“I don’t think any federal law enforcement agency needs anything to do with a football game,” he told me yesterday.

Turns out the TSA goes to NFL games and political conventions and all kinds of places that have little or nothing to do with air travel. It even has a special division called VIPR — an unfortunate acronym for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team — that conducts these searches.

Few people know that $105 million of their taxpayer dollars are going to fund 37 VIPR teams in 2012, whose purpose is to “augment” the security of any mode of transportation. They don’t realize that these VIPR teams can show up virtually anytime, anywhere and without warning, subjecting you to a search of your vehicle or person.

That’s not a fringe observation, by the way. Even the most mainstream news outlets have reported on the problems of these random checkpoints. And it’s being observed by mainstream news personalities, not just consumer advocates with a long list of grievances from their constituents.

But almost no one noticed when the Department of Homeland Security signaled its intent to broaden the scope of its off-airport searches even more in 2013. Buried deep in the Federal Register in late November was a notice that could dramatically shift the focus of transportation security. It involves the government’s efforts to “establish the current state of security gaps and implemented countermeasures throughout the highway mode of transportation” through the Highway Baseline Assessment for Security Enhancement (BASE) program.

As far as I can tell, TSA is just asking questions at this point. “Data and results collected through the Highway BASE program will inform TSA’s policy and program initiatives and allow TSA to provide focused resources and tools to enhance the overall security posture within the surface transportation community,” it says in the filing.

But they wouldn’t be wasting our money asking such questions unless they planned to aggressively expand VIPR at some point in the near future. And that means TSA agents at NFL games, in subways, and at the port won’t be the exception anymore — they will be the rule.

Still, some will argue, what’s wrong with that? After all, VIPR teams were formed in response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and shouldn’t we play it safe?

VIPR may be limited to a few men and women in uniform with dogs, patrolling a sold-out stadium or convention center for now. But it’s not hard to imagine the next step, to a permanent presence with full-body scans and pat-downs. It’s a scene straight out of a dystopian novel, and a direct affront to the Fourth Amendment values we take for granted in the United States.

On another level, there’s this: The TSA was created mainly to safeguard our airports from another 9/11 attack. Being scanned or interrogated by an airport screener at a ballgame makes about as much sense as getting pulled over for speeding by a National Guardsman rattling down the Interstate in an Abrams tank. You would pull over for him, sure — but you would also have a lot of questions.

If VIPR teams are somehow more effective than the highway patrol or the local police at stopping terrorists — and I’m open to that possibility — then the Department of Homeland Security should show us that evidence. In the absence of that, we’re left to assume that the VIPR agents have the requisite 120 hours of training required of other agents, and that they are little more than warm bodies that will deter petty criminals from running cigarettes across a state line.

As we start 2013, the TSA is asking the wrong questions. Instead of being a solution in search of a problem, it should be trying to slim down, get smarter about the way it screens airline passengers, and leaving the rest to the well-trained professionals they will never be able to replace.

If we don’t say something about the TSA’s uncontrollable spread into almost every aspect of the American travel experience, we could one day soon find ourselves answering to someone in a paramilitary blue uniform whenever we set foot outside our door.

That’s not the America you want to live in, is it?

Should the TSA expand VIPR?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Cybrsk8r

    The TSA, the police, etc. Basically anyone acting as a representative of the government. They may have a limited authority to search you in specific situations. In an airport, entering a government building, etc. But they cannot simply decide to search you, your home, or your vehicle, for no reason.

    Never, ever give a cop permission to search anything. very often, on major interstate routes, cops routinely go on treasure hunts in cars they pull over. They act all friendly to get the driver to permit the search. Then, when the cop finds the $500 of vacation money, he declares it suspected drug money and seizes it. No warrant, no charges, not even an arrest. they basically take your money and send you on your way.

    There was a town in Texas that pretty much funded their whole police department with property seized in this manner. They even threatened parents with loss of their children if they didn’t surrender vehicles, money, etc. The mayor and most (if not all) of the police department all ended up in prison, where they belonged.

  • Sommer Gentry

    I make it a point never to carry ID unless I need it for some reason that benefits me. We should all refuse to do things that serve no purpose other than satisfying the authoritarian’s impulse to control us.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Refusing a search is explicitly disallowed as a finding of “probable cause” or “articulable suspicion”. There must be some other reason to justify a search.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Unfortunately, this goes on more than we will ever know. There was a case here in Baltimore just a few years ago where the cops did the same thing to a man in broad daylight on a city street. They also Tasered the guy. The Baltimore PD is going to have to pay big bucks in the lawsuit (rather, we the taxpayers are):

  • Lisa Simeone

    Cybrd8r, bravo! Exactly.

  • cjr001

    Bodega, Friend to the Police State.

  • Daisiemae

    Blogger Bob has posted a statement that TSA does not use drones. How about that?

    Right. And TSA does not separate children from their parents. And TSA does not require passengers to remove prosthetics. And TSA does not strip search elderly women. And TSA does not put its hands into passengers’ underwear. And TSA does not handle feeding tubes. And TSA does not require insulin pumps to go through the xray machine. And TSA does not require breast milk to be x-rayed. And TSA does not save nude images from the scanners. And TSA does not force passengers to be scanned.

    I’m so glad to find out that TSA does not use drones. After all, we have Blogger Bob’s word for it. That’s all we need to know.

  • Daisiemae

    The TSA does not carry guns. However, they can inform LEOs that you have a weapon or a bomb (they informed LEOs that a woman’s diabetic pump was a handgun and the police chased her through the airport) and that could potentially lead to a shooting incident with an over zealous LEO.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Markie, here’s another that might be helpful. I don’t know this guy, don’t know anything about him, just found this a succinct explanation of what to do and not to do, in line with others I’ve read but can’t find right now:

    Edited to add: Here’s a great explanation by Wendy Thomson I had forgotten about. Spells it all out nice and clear, with abundant links:

  • Sommer Gentry

    How to improve security measures: stop doing worthless things like airport searches which absolutely will not ever have any security value (see: French WWII defensive strategy, Maginot line et al.) ; and start doing valuable things like intelligence, police work, and investigation to uncover plots before it’s too late to do anything about them. It’s only your sad lack of imagination that makes you think there could be some improved method of warrantless searches of innocent people that might be valuable. It always was and it always will be worthless to try to find that one needle in a haystack consisting of literally billions of non-terrorist travelers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a wand or nudeoscope or baggage X-ray – you’re looking in the wrong place.

  • bodega3

    Friend of the police…yes.

    BTW, all I did was state that cars are checked at Proms. I am not a part of this, but students know that if they attend, this will take place. Just like at the airport. If you don’t like it, don’t f. Don’t want to worry about a DUI check point, don’t drink and drive. You do have options. Fairly easy to understand.

  • bodega3

    Worthless is your view. Adjustments might be in order but as they keep finding guns in carry ons, worthless isn’t a word many would agree with you on.

  • Daddydo

    Sarcasm or hopelessness….either works. We elect the officials and we keep the officials in that have this massive boondoggle. The government allows idiots to secure us.

  • Sommer Gentry

    They also keep missing loaded guns in carryons, along with oodles of knives that have always and will always make it on to the plane. Most of the tests we know about show that somewhere north of 70% of guns, knives, and bombs brought by testers make it though the checkpoint. And yet, with all those weapons…. there’s never been a single instance of a stabbing on an airplane. Funny – maybe weapons aren’t the problem, but terrorists are the problem.

  • bodega3

    You still haven’t presented any solution.

  • Daisiemae

    Exactly why I said they may “say” they have the right to search you. TSA employees are prolific liars.

  • Daisiemae

    I have a suggestion. If everyone would simply stop replying to bodega and stop giving him/her the attention he/she is craving, he/she would seek it elsewhere.

  • bodega3

    Interesting that you can’t take comments from someone who doesn’t fully agree with you. Very mature.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Here is my solution: start doing valuable things like intelligence, police work, and
    investigation to uncover plots before it’s too late to do anything about
    them. Stop searching people whom you have no reason to suspect of wrongdoing. I’ve stated my solution over and over.

  • Tim Anderson

    When I read the above article the first thought that came to my mind is “Help, help! The paranoids are after me!” TSA stands for Transportation Security Administration, not Airport Security Administration. The Feds have done quite enough to harden our airports. It’s high time they started paying attention to the most likely places that the next terrorist event will occur, and it won’t be at an airport. It will be where a lot of people come together at a specified time, some of them by LRT, a mode of transportation. I agree that TSA shouldn’t be stretching there dominion to NFL football games or other public venues usually covered by other law enforcement agencies unless, of course, they are asked in to help, but I do think the VIPR teams have a purpose and there is a lot of infrastructure going unprotected. It’s a tough job but, I guess, somebody has to complain about it.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Thanks for the info! :-)

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I disagree with you, but understand your point. Thanks. :-)

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Maybe they were on break?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    What credible proof do you have that all local and regional public transit is in danger from TERRORISTS? What about the highway stops VIPR did in Tennessee?

    Why do you think a federal agency should be in charge of securing a city or state tranportation mode? Isn’t that why we have city, county, and state law enforcement?

  • y_p_w

    The way the National Park Service handles incidents, prosecutions, and trials is interesting. There are a mix of different ways they handle it depending on who has jurisdiction over a particular piece of land; the feds don’t always have sole jurisdiction.

    When the feds do have sole jurisdiction, they can and do enforce state laws themselves. They’ll take it to a federal courthouse and trials and hearings occur before a federal magistrate.

    The US Park Police is interesting. They serve as detectives for investigations on NPS land, among other things. I think most people have never heard of them.

    As for NPS rangers, you’ll see a difference between the law enforcement personnel and the interpretive and scientific personnel. The interpretive rangers wear a small dull badge that looks like a shield. The law enforcement rangers wear a shiny golden large badge with an eagle on the top and a badge number on the bottom. They also carry guns. I’ve encountered quite a few where people treated them like tour guides even though they were pretty much just the local police. I remember talking to one after taking a picture for a group, and noting that they didn’t seem to understand that he was law enforcement. He said it came with wearing the hat (they can wear the same “campaign hat”).

  • Kim

    America’s Runaway Police State –