Recent activities conducted by various law enforcement agencies under the direction of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), illustrate once again that the agency has a decidedly tin ear when it comes to concern for how its actions upset and disrupt the travelling public, or how it is perceived by the American people. TSA seems now to have decided to start searching passengers after they disembark from public conveyances. And, such programs apparently are not in response to any particular threats or actual intelligence, but are merely conducted because . . . well, because they can be conducted.
If there’s one thing government is good at, it’s coming up with clever acronyms with which to label its activities. The granddaddy of all such efforts is the “USA PATRIOT Act,” short for the legislation’s real, tongue-twister of a name, the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” Whew; try saying that ten times fast. Of course, more often than not, the real reason government folks — in the Congress or in the administration – spend time creating catchy titles for legislation, is to “sell” their proposals to colleagues and to the public; and what could be more sell-able than the “Patriot Act,” a vote against which would be, by definition according to its supporters, “un-Patriotic.”
The feds have done it again; this time creating catchy acronyms for homeland security programs supposedly targeting surface transportation threats; but which in reality do more to inconvenience the public and raise questions about TSA’s credibility, than they do to enhance security in any meaningful way.
For example, the “VIPER” (or, as it is sometimes referred to, “VIPR”) program, which has been in TSA’s arsenal for at least four-plus years, is supposed to bring together various federal, state and local law enforcement teams in order to better train them to meet terrorist threats in and on America’s roadways, train and bus terminals, and other non-airport locations.
Another program similar to VIPER, is “THOR,” short for “Target Hardening Operational Response,” designed, according to a spokesman for Atlanta’s MARTA system last October, as “a surge sweep initiative designed to create an overwhelming presence of law enforcement personnel.”
The problem is, programs like VIPER and THOR, with their paramilitary titles, connotations and descriptions, raise legitimate questions about the missions and goals of the agencies participating in them. More important, they tend to cause significant disruption to, and concern among, the public. Such concerns, however, appear not to register with the government agencies themselves.
For example, last September, a VIPER training exercise on Interstate 20 in Douglas County, just west of Atlanta, resulted in significant delays and traffic back-ups because of the massive and visible operation stopping all trucks travelling by a weigh station on the highway. The delays and disruptions were maximized because the authorities in charge of this particular training exercise decided to launch it at the height of the afternoon Rush Hour.
While this VIPER training program netted no terrorists, there were a few arrests for more mundane offenses, such as drugs.
A few days after the September VIPER fiasco on I-20, another “training exercise,” this time under the THOR umbrella, caused significant disruption at an Atlanta MARTA station. The paramilitary-festooned law enforcement officers were joined by SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, bomb specialists, and K-9 dog units. This exercise, rather than being conducted at a time least disruptive to the traveling public, took place during morning Rush Hour.
In one of the most recent VIPER fiascos, TSA cordoned off an area at the Savannah, Georgia Amtrak station, and forced disembarking passengers to go through intensive searches of their persons and belongings. Included among those citizens forced to submit to these highly invasive searches after they already had gotten of the trains, were young children.
Time and resources spent on such activities represents time and resources that could be spent on gathering, analyzing, disseminating, and acting on real intelligence of potential terrorist threats; and not subjecting law-abiding American truckers, travelers and families to baseless and intrusive searches of their persons and belongings.
The Congress – especially Rep. John Mica’s Transportation Committee, which oversees TSA, and Darrell Issa’s Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which has oversight responsibility of TSA – needs to ask some far tougher questions than the Congress in the past has asked about what TSA is doing in this regard. They also need to seriously consider cutting off funding for such activities, and re-direct those resources to areas where they could have some real benefit – looking at real terrorist threats.
Perhaps if TSA and our other “homeland security” agencies spent more time looking for the real terrorists, and less time on cool-sounding action exercises disrupting the everyday lives of law-abiding American citizens, there would be less need for such activities in the first place.
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code