TSA expands beyond airport screening

by Lisa Simeone on November 22, 2011

You might think that the TSA operates only at airports. If so, you haven’t been keeping up.

The TSA has its hands all over the country’s transportation systems, from trains to buses to subways to ferries to trucks. Its VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) program has been in operation since 2005.

VIPR teams periodically descend on transportation hubs to conduct “random” searches, as they did in Tennessee; in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky; in Des Moines, Iowa; in Tampa, Florida; in Sacramento, California; and perhaps most notoriously, in Savannah, Georgia, where train passengers were separated from their luggage and body-searched after they got off the train.

Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor hit the roof when he found out and forbade the agency from ever setting foot in an Amtrak station without permission again.

VIPR teams also operate in the New York City subway and in other cities, where, according to the TSA, they “surge into a transit agency.”

They can also show up at “special events,” such as football games. TSA head John Pistole recently testified before Congress that the TSA “conducted more than 8,000 VIPR operations in the past 12 months, including more than 3,700 operations in mass-transit and passenger-railroad venues.”

Then again, VIPR’s activities are legally questionable, as this memo from an anonymous Department of Homeland Security lawyer points out. And not everyone is so sanguine about VIPR’s reach.

But VIPR is only one of the TSA’s “vigilance” programs. First Observer is another. It’s a highway security program, and it engages truckers as watchdogs. Its mission is “to promote the security of our critical infrastructure within the United States by training people to observe, assess, and report risks and security breaches.”

A few days ago, the TSA announced a First Observer award. This is where things get a little confusing. The program is funded by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) and DHS, and run by the TSA, which recruits truckers from an organization called OOIDA, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. OOIDA, in turn, partners with a security firm called HMS.

It’s hard to figure out exactly who does what, but it appears that HMS trains truckers to “observe, assess, report” for OOIDA, which then sends its observations, assessments, and reports to the TSA. In other words, it’s DHS chief Janet Napolitano’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program writ large.

Or at least writ more expensive, since Napolitano’s exhortation applies to the average Joe and doesn’t, presumably, require any special training.

Now that you see how many alphabet-soup organizations are involved in your security, I hope you feel safer — just in time for Thanksgiving! (sarcasm alert)

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