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Airport Security Is Coming to a Highway Near You


The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d’etat, with battering rams and marauding militia. As we have experienced first-hand in recent years, it will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall.

John W. Whitehead

The headline read, “Tennessee Becomes First State To Fight Terrorism Statewide.” News Channel 5 reported that on Tuesday, October 18, Tennessee deployed multiagency “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR) teams “simultaneously at five weigh stations and two bus stations across the state.” These teams conducted unannounced airport-style screenings of truck drivers at weigh stations and passengers at bus terminals.

Clarksville Online explained the authority under which the warrantless searches were conducted, “The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security … partnered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and several other federal and state agencies.” Among the agencies represented in the VIPR teams were Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

The Purpose of VIPR

Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams are an antiterrorist and anticrime method developed by the TSA in 2005 to work with local authorities in “securing” mass transit. VIPR specializes in “random, unpredictable deployments.” In 2007, VIPR teams began to conduct unannounced searches — that is, airport-style patdowns and screenings — at mundane transportation sites such as bus terminals and subways. At present, VIPR is clearly expanding. TSA’s request to Congress for 2012 funding proudly emphasized that the agency conducted 8,000 unannounced security screenings the year before. And TSA has announced that it intends to increase the number of VIPR teams by almost 50 percent.

October 18 is far from the first time that VIPR teams exerted authority over state highways, including those within Tennessee. Indeed, there was a notable failed attempt to do so in April 2009. It was aborted abruptly due to lack of coordination with state authorities and violation of the law. The Infowars site explains, “Tennessee Representative Johnny Shaw admitted he was unaware of the planned operation. He also said Governor Phil Bredesen did not know the DHS and military planned to collaborate with local police … in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act.”

The VIPR deployment last Tuesday was different from past endeavors, however, because it was coordinated, state-wide, and simultaneous at seven locations. The deployment was not a response to a threat but instead was just a training exercise. Drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs checked out trucks, while agents conducted random inspections and questioned drivers. State officials also stressed the “First Observer Highway Security Program,” by which truckers and motorists were admonished to report any suspicious behavior on the road to the TSA. As Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons stated, “if you see something suspicious say something about it.”

Since CBP and ICE agents were present, illegal immigrants were clearly a target. Indeed, the head of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Larry Godwin, commented, “Everything from Wal-Mart merchandise to illegal drugs and illegal immigrants are transported through this area.”

Other VIPR goals or targets were more vaguely stated. Godwin added, “Current interdiction units are doing a good job, but further coordinated inspections will only strengthen their efforts. If we prepare for the worst, then we are ready for almost anything.” Or, as a VIPR agent stated to ABC ActionNews (Tampa) about VIPR in general, its goal is to “sort of invent the wheel in advance in case we have to, if there ever is specific intelligence requiring us to be here, this way us and our partners are ready to move in at a moments notice.”

In short, Tennessee is pioneering a state-wide cooperative venture that turns its highways and mundane mass transit over to the same authority that frisks you at the airport. Other states are considering whether to follow Tennessee’s lead.

As with many policies that now intrude deeply into everyday life, VIPR’s authority comes from an arcanely numbered statute in the voluminous United States Code: Title 6, Section 1112. The program’s mission is “to augment the security of any mode of transportation at any location within the United States.” In its broadest interpretation, the modes of transportation could include children’s school buses, sailboats, and bicycles. Although the foregoing seems to be a reductio ad absurdum in which only the paranoid would engage, the TSA seems willing or eager to follow its power into absurdity. For example, in May 2011, a federal court ruled that TSA was gong to supervise searches at high-school prom in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What a high-school prom has to do with transportation security is yet to be answered. But it does make accusing TSA critics of absurdity difficult to sustain. (According to Infowars.com, the court later allowed the high school to use the state police, rather than the TSA, to conduct the searches.)

Currently, however, VIPR is focusing on highways, usually setting up check points at weigh stations or rest areas.

Responses to VIPR

Although VIPR is specifically mandated to act in cooperation with other police authorities, it has sometimes met considerable resistance from these “partners.” For example, in March 2011, Trains Magazine ran the headline, “Amtrak police chief bars Transportion Security Administration from some security operations.” The reason? Without consulting him, TSA agents set up an inspection point in the Savannah, Georgia, Amtrak station, into which they herded everyone who came off a particular train.

A YouTube video captures the process. As a woman and her two young sons are being wanded and touched, in the background two agents are pawing over the contents of their luggage. According to Trains, Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor “ordered the VIPR teams off Amtrak property, at least until a firm agreement can be drawn up to prevent the TSA from taking actions that the chief said were illegal and clearly contrary to Amtrak policy.”

John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute described one of the privileges enjoyed by VIPR teams: violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. He describes,

an unofficial rewriting of the Fourth Amendment by the courts that essentially does away with any distinctions over what is “reasonable” when it comes to searches and seizures by government agents. The rationale, of course, is that anything is “reasonable” in the war on terrorism. What the powers-that-be understand — and Americans remain oblivious to — is that by constantly pushing the envelope and testing the limits of what Americans will tolerate, the government is thus able to ratchet up the level of intrusiveness that Americans consider reasonable.

In the face of the fear that is constantly stirred up by officials and the media, Americans seem willing to submit to almost any invasion of rights and privacy. When people are afraid, they submit. The unafraid and indignant used to be able to avoid the rape of their rights by refusing to enter an airport. This is no longer possible. The TSA agents are coming to you.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).