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

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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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.

Earlier in June, TSA and Homeland Security officials conducted a similar search at a Des Moines Greyhound station, interviewing passengers and checking identifications.

“It’s just a visible deterrent,” Nico Melendez, a California-based spokesman for the TSA, told The Des Moines Register. “It’s a spot check to make sure that nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Anybody that might consider doing something wrong, you never know when we might be out there.”

But local civil rights activists and eyewitnesses said the officers were targeting Latinos.

In 2009, TSA and Border Patrol officers searched trolley cars in San Diego, resulting in the deportation of 21 people, including three teenagers on their way to school. VIPR searches have also targeted ferries and subways.

Civil liberties groups have lambasted the VIPR program’s random searches. Normally, law enforcement must have “reasonable suspicion or “probable cause” to search a person, but courts carved out an exception for airlines in the 1970s.

Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, warned of the “exception swallowing the rule.”

“Once you start expanding beyond that, what’s the difference between a bus station or a sidewalk where people are lined up at a movie theater — or a sidewalk of any kind?” Stanley said.

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, said the VIPR searches fell outside the scope of TSA’s mission and the acceptable bounds of the Fourth Amendment.

“It’s clear these searches are just aiming to enforce normal criminal law,” Sanchez said. “Those kind of searches are not exempt from the Fourth Amendment. I just have trouble seeing how this just isn’t an attempt to shoehorn warrantless searches on citizens under the rubric of national security,” Sanchez said.

But if anything, TSA is only looking to expand the scope of its operations.

The agency recently conducted a massive training exercise that covered 5,000 square miles throughout Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also included federal air marshals, canine teams, bomb squads and even Blackhawk helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The Charleston Gazette reported that more than 300 law enforcement and military personnel participated in a 100-mile sweep through the Ohio Valley.

“We’ll be back,” Milano said after the Tampa bus station search. “We won’t say when we’ll be back. This way the bad guys are on notice we’ll be back.”