TSA Now Storming Public Places 8,000 Times a Year
Americans must decide if, in the name of homeland security, they are willing to allow TSA operatives to storm public places in their communities with no warning, pat them down, and search their bags. And they better decide quickly.
Bus travelers were shocked when jackbooted TSA officers in black SWAT-style uniforms descended unannounced upon the Tampa Greyhound bus station in April with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and federal bureaucrats in tow.
A news report by ABC Action News in Tampa showed passengers being given the signature pat downs Americans are used to watching the Transportation Security Administration screeners perform at our airports. Canine teams sniffed their bags and the buses they rode. Immigration officials hunted for large sums of cash as part of an anti-smuggling initiative.
The TSA clearly intends for these out-of-nowhere swarms by its officers at community transit centers, bus stops and public events to become a routine and accepted part of American life.
The TSA has conducted 8,000 of these security sweeps across the country in the past year alone, TSA chief John Pistole told a Senate committee June 14. They are part of its VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) program, which targets public transit related places.
All of which is enough to make you wonder if we are watching the formation of the "civilian national security force" President Obama called for on the campaign trail "that is just as powerful, just as strong and just as well funded" as the military.
The VIPR swarm on Wednesday, the TSA's largest so far, was such a shocking display of the agency's power that it set the blogosphere abuzz.
In a massive flex of muscle most people didn't know the TSA had, the agency led dozens of federal and state law enforcement agencies in a VIPR exercise that covered three states and 5,000 square miles. According to the Marietta Times, the sweep used reconnaissance aircraft and "multiple airborne assets, including Blackhawk helicopters and fixed wing aircraft as well as waterborne and surface teams."
When did the TSA get this powerful? Last year, Pistole told USA Today he wanted to "take the TSA to the next level," building it into a "national-security, counterterrorism organization, fully integrated into U.S. government efforts."
What few people realize is how far Pistole has already come in his quest. This is apparently what that next level looks like. More than 300 law enforcement and military personnel swept through a 100-mile stretch of the Ohio Valley alone, examining the area's industrial infrastructure, the Charleston Gazette reported.
Federal air marshals, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, the Office of Homeland Security and two dozen other federal, state and local agencies teamed up to scour the state's roads, bridges, water supply and transit centers under the TSA's leadership.
What is remarkable about these security swarms is that they don't just involve federal, state and local law enforcement officials. The TSA brings in squads of bureaucrats from state and federal agencies as well, everything from transportation departments to departments of natural resources.
The TSA had received no specific threats about the Tampa bus station before the April sweep, reporters were told.
They were there "to sort of invent the wheel in advance in case we have to if there ever is specific intelligence requiring us to be here," said Gary Milano with the Department of Homeland Security in an ABC News Action television report. "This way us and our partners are ready to move in at a moment's notice."
Federal immigration officials from Customs and Border Patrol swept the station with the TSA, looking for "immigration violations, threats to national security" and "bulk cash smuggling." (How the bulk cash smuggling investigation related to national security was never explained.)
"We'll be back," Milano told reporters. "We won't say when we'll be back. This way the bad guys are on notice we'll be back."
The TSA gave the same vague answers when asked about the three-state sweep this week. That sweep wasn't in response to any specific security threat, either.
The purpose was to "have a visible presence and let people know we're out here," Michael Cleveland, federal security director for TSA operations in West Virginia told the Gazette. "It can be a deterrent."
It might be -- if Americans are willing to live this way.
Tara Servatius is a radio talk show host. Follow her @TaraServatius and on Facebook.