John Whitehead tells us about a new snake.
Now, thanks to TSA Chief John Pistole's determination to "take the TSA to the next level," there will soon be no place safe from the TSA's groping searches. Only this time, the "ritualized humiliation" is being meted out by the serpentine-labeled Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) task forces, comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams. At a cost of $30 million in 2009, VIPR relies on 25 teams of agents, in addition to assistance from local law enforcement agencies as well as immigration agents. And as a sign of where things are headed, Pistole, himself a former FBI agent, wants to turn the TSA into a "national-security, counterterrorism organization, fully integrated into U.S. government efforts." To accomplish this, Pistole has requested funding for an additional 12 teams for fiscal year 2012, bringing VIPR's operating budget close to $110 million.
VIPR is the first major step in the government's effort to secure so-called "soft" targets such as malls, stadiums, bridges, etc. In fact, some security experts predict that checkpoints and screening stations will eventually be established at all soft targets, such as department stores, restaurants, and schools. Given the virtually limitless number of potential soft targets vulnerable to terrorist attack, subjection to intrusive pat-downs and full-body imaging will become an integral component of everyday life in the United States. As Jim Harper of the Cato Institute observed, "The natural illogic of VIPR stings is that terrorism can strike anywhere, so VIPR teams should search anywhere."
For now, under the pretext of protecting the nation's infrastructure (roads, mass transit systems, water and power supplies, telecommunications systems, and so on) against criminal or terrorist attacks, these VIPR teams are being deployed to do random security sweeps of nexuses of transportation, including ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. VIPR teams are also being deployed to elevate the security presence at certain special events such as the Democratic National Convention. Sweep tactics include the use of x-ray technology, pat-downs and drug-sniffing dogs, among other things. Unfortunately, these sweeps are not confined to detecting terrorist activity. Federal officials have admitted that transit screening is also intended, at least in some instances, to detect illegal immigration or even cash smuggling.
Incredibly, in the absence of any viable threat, VIPR teams--roving SWAT teams, with no need for a warrant--have conducted 8,000 such searches in public places over the past year. For example, in February 2011, a VIPR team conducted a raid at an Amtrak station in Georgia, not only patting down all passengers--both adults and small children alike--entering the station but also those departing. In a characteristic display of incompetence, TSA agents co-opted the station and posted a sign on the door informing patrons that anyone who entered would be subject to mandatory screening (this, despite the fact that boarding passengers can easily bypass the station entirely and access the boarding area directly). One officer rummaged through a passenger's hand luggage and even smelled her perfume. A vacationing firefighter roped into the search commented, "It was just not professional. It was just weird. We are being harassed by the TSA." In fact, when Amtrak Police Chief John O'Connor was informed of VIPR's activities, he 'hit the ceiling' and banned VIPR personnel from entering Amtrak property.
These raids, conducted at taxpayer expense on average Americans going about their normal, day-to-day business, run the gamut from the ridiculous to the abusive. In Santa Fe, TSA agents were assigned to conduct searches at a high school prom. At the port of Brownsville, in Texas, VIPR units searched all private and commercial vehicles entering and exiting the port. Although the TSA admitted the search was not conducted in response to any specific threat, VIPR agents nonetheless engaged in "thorough" inspections of each and every vehicle. In a training exercise in Atlanta, VIPR teams allegedly arrested a man after discovering a small amount of marijuana in his semi-trailer. In San Diego, a VIPR investigation at a trolley station resulted in the deportation of three teenagers apprehended on their way to school.
In April 2011, Homeland Security official Gary Milano stated that VIPR teams involved in a raid at a Tampa bus station, again conducted in the absence of any threat, were there "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 moment's notice." He added, "We'll be back. We won't say when we'll be back. This way the bad guys are on notice we'll be back."
Likewise, in an intimidating display of force in June 2011, VIPR conducted a vast training exercise--that is, a military raid--covering more than 5,000 square miles' worth of crucial infrastructure sites such as bridges, gas lines, and power plants between Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The raid included members of 70 different agencies, over 400 state and federal agents, Black Hawk helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, and Coast Guard vessels. Although the surveillance activities constituted an exercise rather than a response to an actual terrorist threat, the sweep was clearly calculated to produce a deterrent effect. According to TSA official Michael Cleveland, the purpose of the exercise was to "have a visible presence and let people know we're out here. It can be a deterrent."
The question that must be asked, of course, is who exactly is the TSA trying to target and intimidate? Not would-be terrorists, given that scattershot pat-down stings are unlikely to apprehend or deter terrorists. In light of the fact that average citizens are the ones receiving the brunt of the TSA's efforts, it stands to reason that we've become public enemy number one. We are all suspects. And how does the TSA deal with perceived threats? Its motto, posted at the TSA's air marshal training center headquarters in the wake of 9/11, is particularly telling: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."
Those three words effectively sum up the manner in which the government now relates to its citizens, making a travesty of every democratic ideal our representatives spout so glibly and reinforcing the specter of the police state. After all, no government that truly respects or values its citizens would subject them to such intrusive, dehumanizing, demoralizing, suspicionless searches. Yet by taking the TSA's airport screenings nationwide with VIPR and inserting the type of abusive authoritarianism already present in airports into countless other sectors of American life, the government is expanding the physical and psychological scope of the police state apparatus.
VIPR activities epitomize exactly the kind of farcical security theater the government has come to favor through its use of coded color alerts and other largely superficial yet meaningless maneuvers. These stings do, however, inculcate and condition citizens to a culture of submissiveness towards authority and regularize intrusive, suspicionless searches as a facet of everyday life. In April, for instance, at a Tampa bus station, VIPR patted down passengers and used dogs to search the luggage. That type of small-scale, random operation provides little actual value but does impart to some citizens a false sense of security. A passenger in Tampa, for instance, commented, "I feel safe, knowing that I get on a bus and I'm not going to blow up."
It's an ingenious plan: the incremental ratcheting-up of intrusive searches (VIPR searches are not yet widespread), combined with the gradual rollout of VIPR teams permits the normalization of TSA activities while inciting minimal resistance, thereby muting dissent and enabling the ultimate implementation of totalitarian-style authoritarianism.
Sadly, this repeated degradation by government officials of Americans engaged in common activities inevitably normalizes what is essentially an abusive relationship to such an extent that authority figures are permitted to trample Americans' constitutional rights with impunity. And those abused are prevented even from protesting. Reinforcing this latter point is the TSA's recent admission that those who merely exercise their First Amendment rights by complaining about intrusive airport security exhibit a behavioral indicator of a "high risk" passenger that, in combination with other behavioral indicators, warrants additional screening.
The expansion of the police state is also fueled by the dynamics present in the relationship between a politician and his constituents. Popular anger over government policies is difficult to sustain for an extended period of time. Outrage over the TSA scanners, for instance, will have substantially diminished by the time the next election cycle occurs. Thus, in many cases, politicians have little incentive to roll back the national security apparatus. In the other direction, however, the incentives are substantial: a politician who dismantles portions of the police state risks being labeled soft on terrorism. The trend, therefore, is to strike a politically cautious balance by incrementally expanding the national security bureaucracy, thereby avoiding inciting civil libertarian outrage.
TSA and VIPR searches also indoctrinate children to accept pat-downs, full-body scans, and the like, as a regular component of the relationship between government and its citizens. In this way, police state tactics will gradually grow in acceptance as simply "the way things are." A child who has been molested by government officials since before he could read is unlikely to question such activities as an unjustified exercise of authority when an adult.
We need to find a way to soft-kill this bureaucratic snakenest before they force us by their predations to hard-kill these snakes individually.
I invite discussion on non-violent ways to harass them out of existence. Target businesses who cooperate with them? Harass/recall local Sheriffs who provide bully boys for their Gestapo checkpoints?