Planes, trains and automobiles: TSA’s ever-expanding jurisdiction

Planes, trains and automobiles — the Transportation Security Administration is now inspecting them all. And trolleys, ferries, subways and even private cars.

For several years now, TSA has coordinated with local and federal law enforcement agencies to perform inspections and large-scale training operations through its VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) program, targeting random transportation centers and giving unsuspecting citizens its trademark pat-downs. (AFL-CIO wins representation of TSA agents)

TSA conducted more than 8,000 VIPR operations in the past 12 months alone, including more than 3,700 operations in mass transit and passenger railroad venues.

In 2009, the total cost to taxpayers was $30 million. And now the agency is requesting funding for 12 more VIPR teams, which would bring the total to 37 squads and a budget of almost $110 million a year.

TSA began the VIPR program in 2007. TSA Administrator John Pistole, testifying before a House committee, explained the purpose of the program.

“Working alongside local law enforcement agencies throughout the transportation domain, TSA’s VIPR teams enhance the agency’s ability to leverage a variety of resources quickly in order to increase security in any mode of transportation anywhere in the country,” Pistole said.

Here’s what that looks like in practice:

A recent news report said TSA was searching private cars and commercial trucks as they left a port in Brownsville, Texas. According to the report, it was a random operation and not in response to any specific threat.

Passengers at a Greyhound bus station in Tampa, Florida were recently subjected to pat-downs and screenings by TSA and local immigration officials. K-9 units and officers were also searching for large amounts of cash being smuggled into the country.  Again, it was not in response to any specific threat.

Greg Milano with the Department of Homeland Security said in a TV interview afterword that the operation was intended “to sort of invent the wheel in advance if we have to.”

“If there ever is specific intelligence requiring us to be here, that means us and our partners are ready to move in at a moment’s notice,” Milano said.