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

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?

  • 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.

  • 1amWendy

    The TSA cannot subject you to a search without your permission. Period. Just Say No.

    • Well, kinda sorta. You mean everywhere else but the airport. (Although if people were willing to take a stand, they wouldn’t subject themselves to the TSA at airports either.)

      But I agree that everywhere else, any citizen worth the name would speak those 8 magic words: “No, I do not consent to this search.”

    • CelticWhisper


      I believe you. That said, can you link me to a breakdown of how this works and what to do if I’m accosted by TSA clerks-not-officers-not-agents and/or their poisonous-snake teams in an Amtrak station and they try to harass me for refusing? Those who know me know there’s a specific reason or two why I don’t do confrontation very well and considering that VIPRs are generally armed…

      I just can’t shake this vision of them persisting in trying to harass me even after I’ve told them I don’t consent to any searches.

      • 1amWendy

        This is what I have planned to do, Celtic: please wrap this around a 110-lb woman saying this: I do not consent to this search. Please call Amtrak police. [stop talking] To Amtrak police: Sir/madam, I have read your website about searches (have a copy), and I agree to them (which is a less-than-60-second check of baggage only), executed by you. I will not recognize the TSA’s claim to authority in this venue. There is no “sterile area” in a train station. So this is what I am asking: either conduct your search per your website, escort me to my train with or without your search, or take me back to the ticket counter so I can change my reservation to tomorrow, or give me my money back.

        • CelticWhisper

          Thanks for that. Also, while I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for me with my current travel plans, would this work as well at a tiny, middle-of-nowhere wooden-platform train station as it would at Union or 30th Street? Just thinking in terms of arrival time for APD officers and whatnot.

          Then again, I suppose TSA’s poisonous-snake teams would be more likely to target larger venues anyway due to having more opportunities to harass, intimidate, and threaten innocent travelers there.

          • 1amWendy

            Should work anywhere. I also bought a shirt with chest pockets 🙂 so I can real-time record the audio and auto-upload to the Internet via my smart phone.

          • CelticWhisper

            I did…almost the same thing. Used a pen camera (thanks, TUG discreet-recorder recommendations!) clipped to a breast pocket when I was boarding the Capitol Limited en route to Pittsburgh last spring. Turned out to be totally unnecessary, as the only unpleasant part of the whole process was my bag strap dutifully building a replica of the Grand Canyon in my shoulder, but I tested the recording later and it did work. Just wish the pen camera auto-uploaded, but I suppose I could try to cut a tiny hole in the fabric to line up with my N900’s camera and use Bambuser or something.

    • bob

      TSA has no authority outside of the Airport environment to conduct searches UNAIDED. TSA VIPR only ASSISTS local law enforcement. You can tell them to go shove off. However they will pull in some LEO, whom no doubt is pocketing some fat DHS money, who will quickly smack you down.

      Amtrak is different as it is federal property. Amtrak Police are sworn LEO’s.

      But you see how this works? They will search you, and if you refuse they call in a local cop who will tell you to submit or take a hike. That is how they get around the legality of the situation. SS runs the camp. TSA drops the gas canister.

      • CelticWhisper

        Thanks, Bob.

        Is there a reasonable, practical way around this? I recall something about inquiring as to what statute was being enforced – will that work in these scenarios (local light rail, bus station, etc.)?

        • CW, in the case of Amtrak, you can refuse to be searched and Amtrak police will then escort you to the ticket window where you can get a refund. You can’t take your train, though (obviously). Amtrak policy is posted on the website:

          “*With due respect to passengers’ privacy, the random screening and inspection of passengers and their personal items will be completed as quickly as possible – usually in less than a minute. Passengers failing to consent to security procedures will be denied access to trains and refused carriage, and a refund will be offered.”

          • Saul B

            Unless you’re boarding at the busiest station of all — New York Penn — in which case you can just go down to the mezzanine and walk down the stairs for your track there. Guaranteed to be free from the mobs boarding from the main level, and nearly guaranteed to be free from thugs in blue.

            Of course a terrorist would never do this.

        • bob

          No way around it. If you refuse a search you will have to deal with the local LEO. And all of these departments are getting paid via “homeland security grants”. So they will cooperate with whatever DHS wants them to do. Every municipal funded train or local bus lines will have their own policy regarding refusal of search. Become familiar with what the rules are and expect the LEO to not know what they are. In the case of my state run transportation system, if you refuse the VIPR search you loose ridership privileges for the day. They could easily bump that up to forever, although i would assume that would be challenged in court. The disease is deep and not easily cured. I would think that if only 10% opted out, the gears would be completely clogged. Educating the public that this is not about security, but rather about expanding the police state is one of the few ways that we can bring about change.

      • 1amWendy

        So we need to all be Rosa Parks.

      • My choices are submit or take a hike? Ok. I’ll take a hike, then. (Starts car, drives away)