TSA spreading its wings beyond airports

Freedom New Mexico

Weren’t airport pat downs enough? The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its reach of checkpoints and control far beyond protecting airports.

“TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass-transit locations around the country,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte, N.C., told the paper, “We are not the Airport Security Administration. We take that transportation part seriously.”

The TSA has established a new operation, with another of those unwieldy government names: Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. These VIPR teams, according to the Times, “have run more than 9,300 unannounced checkpoints and other search operations in the last year. Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.” The DHS is the TSA’s parent department. Both were founded in the rush to “do something, anything” following 9/11, even if the result damaged sacred American liberties.

In 2011, the TSA spent $110 million on the VIPR teams. Like every government agency ever heard of, it wants more taxpayer money and is seeking another $24 million for 2012. That would be a 22 percent increase — at a time of severe budget deficits.

The VIPR teams in 2011 checked ferry, cruise-ship, bus and train passengers. According to News Channel 5, a Nashville, Tenn., TV station, in October, “Tennessee was first to deploy VIPR simultaneously at five weigh stations and two bus stations across the state.

“Agents are recruiting truck drivers … into the First Observer Highway Security Program to say something if they see something. … It’s all meant to urge every driver to call authorities if they see something suspicious.”

Nov. 4, the Sacramento Bee reported, “(TSA) agents boarded Amtrak trains in Sacramento today to conduct one of their periodic VIPR operations, officials said.”

To us, this sounds like something more like the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, in which citizens spy on one another. “Your papers, please!” should not be a command Americans hear, and fear.

The TSA insists the VIPR stings are making America safer from terrorist attacks. The random nature of the checkpoints supposedly would scramble terrorists’ planning.

Critics call it political theater. Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said, “It’s a great way to make the public think you are doing something. It’s a little like saying, ‘If we start throwing things up in the air, will they hit terrorists?’”

We also object to this on civil rights grounds. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “(t)he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Airport pat downs are bad enough. But searching random bus passengers — without any prior grounds for suspicion — clearly is a step too far for the TSA.

In this time of tight budgets, Congress not only should deny an extra $24 million for the VIPR program, but should cancel the program, saving $110 million. Local law enforcement, attuned to the Fourth Amendment and local needs, can protect us adequately without the feds always barging in.

As Ben Franklin warned, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”