This article in the Los Angeles Times describes TSA deployment to other public transport, including train stations, subways, ferry terminals, cruise ships, and highway weigh stations.
“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?’”