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Intro: "Roving security teams increasingly visit train stations, subways and other mass transit sites to deter terrorism. Critics say it's largely political theater."

A Transportation Security Administration agent performs an enhanced pat-down on a traveler at a security area at Denver International Airport in Denver, 11/17/11. (photo: Craig F. Walker/AP)
A Transportation Security Administration agent performs an enhanced pat-down on a traveler at a security area at Denver International Airport in Denver, 11/17/11. (photo: Craig F. Walker/AP)

TSA Screenings Aren't Just for Airports Anymore

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

02 January 12


Roving security teams increasingly visit train stations, subways and other mass transit sites to deter terrorism. Critics say it's largely political theater.

ick Vetter was rushing to board the Amtrak train in Charlotte, N.C., on a recent Sunday afternoon when a canine officer suddenly blocked the way.

Three federal air marshals in bulletproof vests and two officers trained to spot suspicious behavior watched closely as Seiko, a German shepherd, nosed Vetter's trousers for chemical traces of a bomb. Radiation detectors carried by the marshals scanned the 57-year-old lawyer for concealed nuclear materials.

When Seiko indicated a scent, his handler, Julian Swaringen, asked Vetter whether he had pets at home in Garner, N.C. Two mutts, Vetter replied. "You can go ahead," Swaringen said.

The Transportation Security Administration isn't just in airports anymore. TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country.

"We are not the Airport Security Administration," said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte. "We take that transportation part seriously."

The TSA's 25 "viper" teams - for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response - 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.

According to budget documents, the department spent $110 million in fiscal 2011 for "surface transportation security," including the TSA's viper program, and is asking for an additional $24 million next year. That compares with more than $5 billion for aviation security.

TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving viper teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence.

"We have to keep them [terrorists] on edge," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. "We're not going to have a permanent presence everywhere."

U.S. officials note that digital files recovered from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May included evidence that the Al Qaeda leader had considered an attack on U.S. railways in February 2010. Over the last decade, deadly bombings have hit subways or trains in Moscow; Mumbai, India; Madrid; and London.

But critics say that without a clear threat, the TSA checkpoints are merely political theater. Privacy advocates worry that the agency is stretching legal limits on the government's right to search U.S. citizens without probable cause - and with no proof that the scattershot checkpoints help prevent attacks.

"It's a great way to make the public think you are doing something," said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who writes on privacy and security. "It's a little like saying, 'If we start throwing things up in the air, will they hit terrorists?' ''

Such criticism is nothing new to the TSA.

The agency came under fresh fire this month when three elderly women with medical devices complained that TSA agents had strip-searched them in separate incidents at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Lenore Zimmerman, 84, said she was ordered to pull down her pants after she refused to pass through a full body scanner because she was afraid the machine would interfere with her heart defibrillator.

TSA officials denied the women were strip-searched, but they announced plans to create a toll-free telephone number for passengers with medical conditions who require assistance in airport screening lines. TSA officials said they also are considering a proposal by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to designate a passengers advocate at every airport.

The TSA's viper program hasn't drawn that kind of attention, although it is increasingly active.

In Tennessee in October, a viper team used radiation monitors and explosive-trace detectors to help state police inspect trucks at highway weigh stations throughout the state. Last month in Orlando, Fla., a team set up metal detectors at a Greyhound bus station and tested passengers' bags for explosive residue.

In the Carolinas this year, TSA teams have checked people at the gangplanks of cruise ships, the entrance to NASCAR races, and at ferry terminals taking tourists to the Outer Banks.

At the Charlotte train station on Dec. 11, Seiko, the bomb-sniffing dog, snuffled down a line of about 100 passengers waiting to board an eastbound train. Many were heading home after watching the Charlotte Panthers NFL team lose to the Atlanta Falcons after holding a 16-point lead.

No one seemed especially perturbed by the TSA team.

"It's probably overkill," said Karen Stone, 26, after a behavior-detection officer asked her about the Panthers game and her trip home to Raleigh.

"It's cool," said Marcus Baldwin, 21, who was heading home to Mebane, near Burlington, where he waits tables to help pay for computer technology classes. "They're doing what our tax money is paying them to do."

"I'm mostly curious," said Barbara Spencer, 75, who was heading home to Chapel Hill after watching her grandson perform in a Christmas play. She asked the officers whether a terrorist threat had required the extra security. No, they replied.

Vetter, the lawyer, had attended the game with his son, Noah. They jogged for the train after Seiko had finished his sniff, but Vetter had bigger worries on his mind. "The Panthers blew it," he said. your social media marketing partner


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+23 # futhark 2012-01-02 10:33
I went to the Post Office in downtown Sacramento a couple of years ago to buy some stamps. I wasn't allowed by the screener to go into the lobby because I had a "Bucktool" (sort of like a "Leatherman") strapped to my belt. Like I was going to hijack the Post Office and fly it into the California State Capital building!
+17 # Scott479 2012-01-02 11:40
First off-TSA already admits their screening equipment emits 10 times the amount of radiation they claimed initially. Please see flyersrights.or g started by a gal who was forced to spend 9 hours stuck on the tarmac with no right to redress.
Recommend this

And their homesite: http://www.flyersrights.or g/index.php
+43 # Johnny 2012-01-02 11:52
"Largely political theater," my largely political ass! It is entirely political theater. A sham with no other purpose than to terrify the American masses so they will continue to exchange all civil liberties for the Fuehrer's love and protection.
+8 # Texas Aggie 2012-01-02 12:26
Well said!
+30 # Texas Aggie 2012-01-02 12:28
serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence.

I can't speak to the deterrent part, but as a member of the public I can assure you that it doesn't bolster my confidence at all. The public is in more danger from these authoritarian types than they are from actual terrorists.
+23 # RMDC 2012-01-02 12:44
All of this is getting so absurd that it is getting funny.

""We have to keep them [terrorists] on edge," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. "

I've got news for you, Frank, the terrorists are not "on edge." Ordinary Americans are getting on edge. They hate you and what you are doing. Ron Paul has said it right -- terrorism is caused by US policy and actions in the middle east. Stop US imperialism, and terrorism stops. All that TSA does is simply a waste of time and a great insult to American citizens.

If it is "political theater," then it is really bad theater. Time to cancel the show.
+17 # rhgreen 2012-01-02 12:56
Yes it's political theatre. Yes using our tax money, more & more of it, not for what our tax money should be paying for but for spawning an ever larger bureaucracy (including a passenger advocate at every airport and a subsystem for passengers with medical conditions!) that's able to protect itself and prevent any attempt - ever - to eliminate it or downsize it. Bolster public confidence? Yes doing that is a great way to enhance TSA job security. Yes it's gradually eroding civil liberties, but we'll gradually forget what they were anyway. Any halfway decent cost-benefit analysis would suggest eliminating or at least downsizing the whole "security" apparatus. For the average traveler, encountering a terrorist incident during a year is less likely than getting hit by lightning. I remember talking to an English lady tourist not long after 9/11, and her saying "This is way over the top. It's a massive overreaction. We have dealt with IRA terrorist bombs for many years without inflicting this sort of thing on ourselves." Too right.
+9 # Seneca 2012-01-02 14:00
A lawyer? Really? Why did he not think to speak up for his Constitutional RIGHT of Probable cause? Or Unreasonable search and seizure? More and more striking similarities to the Third Reich are happening in America every day.Will the average person wake up in time to realize that this was planned well in advance and the only 'terrorists' we have to be concerned about are the Washington/Wall Street cabal.
+4 # Texan 4 Peace 2012-01-02 15:26
Here's a useful bit of information that I gleaned from this article. If a bomb-sniffing dog is alerted by some scent on your clothes, just tell the accompanying officer that you have dogs at home.
Way to keep those terrorists "on edge"!
+4 # papabob 2012-01-02 15:41
If, everyday, the Transportation Security Administration was to do pat-downs at the US Congress, things would change very quickly. It's clear that "some are more equal than others".
+9 # panhead49 2012-01-02 16:48
Portable Chertoff Porno Screeners - what next?

Our 'screening' processes are a very unfunny joke. Had to fly out of MS about 5 am on Thanksgiving day. My carry on bag was a tad large - but so were my pointy toed cowboy boots, hat, jeans and western shirt. Waived on thru with many salutations regarding the holiday. Had to change planes at DFW. Middle eastern woman in line (no burqa, no head scarf just facial features) before me was told her carry on was too big (about half the size of mine) and had to be checked. Not a peep about my bag. We walked down the ramp together and I asked her 'did they say your bag was too big', she said yes and looked at my bag - all I could say was 'sorry we're still so racist'.

This is NOT about our safety - this is about controlling the masses and shredding the Bill of Rights. Uh, Mission Accomplished?
+3 # redjelly39 2012-01-02 20:47
Bill of Rights ? You mean "Subjective Temporary Privileges" :)

Its like the term Homeland Security which is the same name Hitler called his dictatorship.

I served my country in the 70's but this is no longer that country - this has become something quite different.

FEMA camps await us all.
+2 # Glen 2012-01-03 06:44
Personal experience and testimony are what everyone needs to hear. I am ALWAYS pulled out of line in an airport, right along with young mothers with children, while big burly guys with skull and crossbones on their t shirts walk straight through.

Glad you spoke to the woman. Our country is quite backward, really, and yes, the controls over citizens are growing.
+6 # redjelly39 2012-01-02 20:08
Its time to leave this chickensh!t country and live abroad. I served in the military to protect my country but this is no longer my country. Its some sort of fascist dictatorship that no longer recognizes our Constitution or Bill of Rights.
+3 # Richard1908 2012-01-02 20:14
It's a terrible sight watching a train explode and plummet 35,000 feet to earth.
+2 # Anarchist 23 2012-01-04 17:04
This is really screwing up my viewing pleasure when watching Casablanca. Now we are the ones asking 'papers please' and rounding up the usual suspects. We can no longer congratulate ourselves on being the 'American' in Rick's American Cafe-today's viewer is asked to judge a current 'Rick' differently. according to our 'new view' Rick was obviously a dangerous leftist anarchist on the run who aided terrorists.

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