The agency now has Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads, known as VIPR teams, assigned to perform security sweeps at transportation facilities across the United States in the name of terrorism prevention.
Included in the "transportation hubs" in which the VIPR squads are found are highway weigh stations, train terminals, sporting events, and music festivals, according to the Daily Kos.
The teams were created in 2005 in response to the train bombing in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 people in 2004, but the program has now reached a budget of $100 million, with 37 teams, marking a significant expansion of the program. Records from the Transportation and Security Administration show that in 2012, the VIPR teams conducted more than 8,800 unannounced checkpoints and search operations with local law enforcement outside of airports.
The New York Times writes that the teams are “composed of federal air marshals, explosives experts and baggage inspectors,” as well as bomb-sniffing dogs. Likewise, there is typically an undercover member who is dressed as a passenger who monitors the crowds for suspicious activity.
Predictably, the squads have provoked the ire of privacy-protection advocates.
The New York Times reports, “TSA and local law enforcement officials say the teams are a critical component of the nation’s counterterrorism efforts, but some members of Congress, auditors at the Department of Homeland Security and civil liberties groups are sounding alarms.”
But the agency asserts the squads’ necessity.
“Our mandate is to provide security and counterterrorism operations for all high-risk transportation targets, not just airports and aviation,” explains John S. Pistole, TSA administrator. “The VIPR teams are a big part of that.”
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