The Transportation Security Administration has spread its authority beyond airports to include surveillance and search operations at other public spaces and events across the United States.
According to The New York Times
, the TSA, which was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is best known for airport screenings, is dispatching its Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams to patrol highway weigh stations and Amtrak and commuter trains.
The agency also is expanding beyond transportation venues to places such as sporting events and music festivals.
"Our mandate is to provide security and counterterrorism operations for all high-risk transportation targets, not just airports and aviation," TSA Administrator John Pistole told the Times. "The VIPR teams are a big part of that."
Some critics, however, are concerned that the VIPR activity leads to warrantless searches and an infringement on civil liberties. They also say it's a waste of money, given that other law enforcement agencies have responsibility for security at many of the places where TSA is turning up.
Critics also question whether the expanded activities have foiled a terrorist plot or any major threat to public safety.
"The problem with TSA stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause," Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, told the Times. "It's something that is easily abused because the reason that they are conducting the stops is shrouded in secrecy."
Since 2001, the TSA has grown to 56,000 employees at 450 U.S. airports. The VIPR teams were started in 2005, in part as a reaction to the Madrid train bombing in 2004, and now have an annual operating budget of $100 million, the Times reported.
The teams typically include federal air marshals, explosive experts, and baggage inspectors. They move through crowds with bomb-sniffing dogs and randomly stop passengers to ask security questions. A plain-clothed officer is also part of the team to help monitor crowds for suspicious behavior.
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