The TSA is expanding its services. Now, don’t worry. They’ll still be there to feel you up in the airport queue. But the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) unit of the TSA has gone national. Find them in a town near you.
According to the VIPR website, they have only one objective: the “deterrence and prevention of terrorism.” Which is why they’ve set up posts all around the country at train stations, music festivals, and rodeos.
John S. Pistole, the administrator of VIPR, gave an explanation for the diverse assignments. He told the New York Times, “Our mandate is to provide security and counter-terrorism operations for all high-risk transportation targets, not just airports and aviation. The VIPR teams are a big part of that.”
But are these counter-terrorism operations even legal? In an America of NSA scandals and PATRIOT Acts, that question has been the elephant in the room for a long time. In the case of VIPR, one legal adviser is not convinced the unit has the right to stop and frisk citizens.
Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said, “The problem with TSA stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause. It’s something that is easily abused because the reason that they are conducting the stops is shrouded in secrecy.”
The TSA’s response to Barnes’ claim is frightening, and yet not surprising at all. TSA officials assert that probable cause often impedes upon the government’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks. So basically when the law became a hassle, the TSA just ditched it altogether. In the TSA’s opinion, random searches are “special needs” or “administrative searches.”
The TSA first established its VIPR unit after the Madrid train bombings in 2004. The units are filled with skilled personnel: federal air marshals, explosives experts, and former military officers. And their budget exceeds $100 million. Yet there is no evidence that the VIPR has ever foiled a terrorist plot. When pushed on the issue, TSA officials told the New York Times that the information was confidential, but that heavy police presence “bolsters the public confidence.”
I bet they can't prove that either.
But should VIPR be able to operate in our towns? I don't even think that's the most important question. VIPR is but a means to an end -— fighting terror. What we need to figure out first is how far we're willing to take this war. Do we preserve our privacy and the laws that protect it? If not, what price are we willing to pay for national security? Will we give the government the right to find the one terrorist among us by all means necessary? And if we do, will the costs of that choice outweigh the benefits?
Those are the questions we have yet to answer. But we must soon, or else units like VIPR (and the TSA for that matter) will become the status quo. And we'll forget to question whether or not they ever made us safer at all.