TSA rail, subway spot-checks raise privacy issues

Riders make more than 10 billion trips a year on U.S. public transit services, according to the American Public Transportation Association. New York City police sometimes screen passenger bags at subway stops. TSA officers may coordinate with police on these operations.

CNN | Jan 28, 2012

By Thom Patterson

(CNN) — Rick Vetter and his teen son got a pretty good look at the legal line between privacy and security last month, as they wrapped up a day trip to Charlotte, North Carolina.

After watching the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers, they were looking forward to a three-hour train ride back home to Raleigh when they arrived at the train station.

Walking up a ramp toward the platform, they noticed what appeared to be a uniformed Transportation Security Administration officer holding a leashed police dog.

“He just loosened the leash on the dog, and the dog came over to check me out,” Vetter said. Standing on the platform above Vetter were three other officers who appeared to be wearing bullet-proof vests.

As the guard dog smelled him, Vetter — who has two dogs of his own — told the officer that it probably was reacting to the smell of Vetter’s pets.

“The TSA officer said ‘OK’ or something like that. Then it was clear that the dog had done what he needed to do, and we went on up the ramp to get on the train.”

“I’m sure somebody who wasn’t comfortable with dogs would have found it a lot more disconcerting than I did, but I sort of didn’t worry about it,” said Vetter, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Vetters had encountered VIPR — special TSA Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams that are tasked with performing random, unpredictable baggage and security checks at passenger train, subway and bus stations as well as trucking weigh stations across the nation.

TSA officials like to point out that the acronym stands for Transportation Security Administration, not the Airport Security Administration. And that’s where VIPR comes in.

Born after 2004’s Madrid railway bombings, VIPR suffered some embarrassing coordination struggles, transit officials say.

The program has 15 teams and is expanding to get access to 12 new teams to spot-check thousands of transportation depots across the nation.

VIPR teams conducted 3,895 operations in “surface modes” nationwide in 2010, according to the Department of Homeland Security (PDF).

The expansion comes after intelligence from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound revealed al Qaeda plans to target U.S. rail systems on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

At a time when TSA airport searches are unpopular among many air travelers, civil liberties groups say VIPR’s joint participation with local police in “warrantless” searches have been “flying under the radar” in violation of constitutional protections. Transit police say it helps them better guard against attacks like those that have hit Madrid, London and Moscow since 2004.

VIPR teams join local authorities for many of their operations aimed at searching passenger bags. Authorities say officers include plainclothes and uniformed team members — some of them armed — who arrive without telling passengers in advance.

Officers in the joint operations then randomly ask travelers for permission to search their bags for explosives. To prevent accusations of profiling, searchers choose a random number — eight for example — and then search the bags of every eighth passenger before they board.

Also, VIPR observers may be in the vicinity, keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior, police say.

Local and federal authorities insist the searches are not mandatory.

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