The Transportation Security Administration is taking its show on the road with increasing frequency, conducting warrantless searches in train stations, highway weigh stations, and even entertainment venues unrelated to transportation, such as music festivals. The special teams conducting the surveillance and searches are called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response units, which produces the cool-sounding acronym VIPR teams. They are typically comprised of air marshals, explosives specialists, canine units, and Behavior Detection Officers, who are supposedly trained to detect suspicious behavior. The TSA argues that these highly-visible teams, roving through public areas outside their usual airport venues, act as a deterrent to terrorism. This is doubtful, as their methods are based on procedures that have demonstrably failed at airports, while they inflict the delays and intrusions of airport security on an unsuspecting public.
Before getting to their effectiveness, it must be noted that these random searches are of questionable constitutionality. Though the TSA claims that they are exempt from probable-cause constraints, legal experts specializing in privacy issues and civil liberties groups disagree, saying that legal standards do not support random searches outside the airport by TSA employees. The delays and intrusion have angered people who might be just be commuting to or from work, nowhere near an airport security checkpoint, where we have come to expect annoying and time-consuming searches of our bodies and property. For example, VIPR teams in 2011 infuriated travelers in Savannah, Georgia by actually screening and patting down passengers getting off an Amtrak train, which seems pointless as well as annoying.
On top of all that, a key aspect of VIPR team operations relies on practices that have been proven ineffective in airport TSA settings: the Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) and their Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) protocol. This is a program under which BDOs have supposedly been trained to detect suspicious people, supposedly by observing their behavior (shifty eyes? excessive perspiration?) The SPOT program has come under a great deal of criticism for its ineffectiveness in airports, where it has been used since 2007. Despite having cost the taxpayers $878 million so far, it has failed to stop even one terrorist from getting on a plane in the U.S.
According to a Government Accountability Office report, since the program's inception, just over a thousand travelers were arrested after being "SPOTed"; however, none of them were involved in terrorism, but had outstanding warrants, were carrying drugs, etc. Not only are these teams spending time and money arresting the wrong bad guys, they have actually failed to stop at least 17 terrorists from flying at eight airports where BDOs were employed. The most recent example was the man who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010; he was able to make it past BDOs at JFK airport just days after the attempted bombing, and hours after he was identified as the primary suspect by law enforcement.
Despite the recent report by the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general that the SPOT program doesn't justify the costs, the program continues to grow and maintain its funding. It is another example, one of many in recent months, of a government agency enjoying unchecked power and fat budgets all in the name of security.