At Union Station on a recent morning, an armed squad of men and women dressed in bulletproof vests made their way through the crowds. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/us/tsa-expands-duties-beyond-airport-security.html?pagewanted=1&ref=us The squad was not with the Washington police department or Amtrak’s police force, but was one of the Transportation Security Administration’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads — VIPR teams for short — assigned to perform random security sweeps at transportation hubs across the United States.
The agency best known for airport screenings has vastly expanded its reach to sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train terminals. Not everyone is happy.
Members of Congress, auditors at the Department of Homeland Security and civil liberties groups are sounding alarms. The teams are also raising hackles among passengers who call them unnecessary and intrusive.
Auditors at the Department of Homeland Security are asking questions about whether the teams are properly trained and deployed based on actual security threats.
Civil liberties groups say that the VIPR teams have little to do with the agency’s original mission to provide security screenings at airports and that in some cases their actions amount to warrantless searches in violation of constitutional protections.
“The problem with T.S.A. stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause,” said Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “It’s something that is easily abused because the reason that they are conducting the stops is shrouded in secrecy.”
The program now has a $100 million annual budget and is growing rapidly, increasing to several hundred people and 37 teams last year, up from 10 teams in 2008. T.S.A. records show that the teams ran more than 8,800 unannounced checkpoints and search operations outside of airports last year, including those at the Indianapolis 500 and the Democratic and Republican national political conventions.
In 2011, the VIPR teams were criticized for screening and patting down people after they got off an Amtrak train in Savannah, Ga. As a result, the Amtrak police chief briefly banned the teams from the railroad’s property, saying the searches were illegal.
In April 2012, during a joint operation with the Houston police and the local transit police, people boarding and leaving city buses complained that T.S.A. officers were stopping them and searching their bags. Dozens of angry residents packed a public meeting with Houston transit officials to object to what they saw as an unnecessary intrusion by the T.S.A.
“It was an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Robert Fickman, a local defense lawyer who attended the meeting. “Did we need to have T.S.A. in here for a couple of minor busts?”