The U.S. Transportation Security Administration may permanently shift teams of specially trained officers that do random searches at train and bus stations to airports.
The biggest short-term change to agency practices after the Nov. 1 Los Angeles International Airport shooting has been moving some of its 37 Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, teams around the U.S. from surface-transportation settings to airports, Administrator John Pistole said at a conference in Washington today.
“I immediately moved some to airports, to have a greater visible deterrent there,” Pistole said. “We’re looking at the possibility of continuing that.”
TSA officials said after the shooting, in which for the first time an agency employee was killed while on duty, that areas in the front part of airports like ticketing counters were vulnerable to attack. The agency doesn’t provide security between the curb, where passengers are dropped off, and the security checkpoint.
The Dec. 13 arrest of a Kansas man allegedly planning a bomb attack at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport underscores that not all terrorist threats come from abroad, Pistole said. The Los Angeles airport shooting suspect, also a U.S. citizen, “wanted to kill as many TSA employees as he could,” Pistole said.
The TSA held a meeting with 30 aviation-industry stakeholders the week after the Los Angeles attack and will hold another meeting in January, Pistole said. The agency is trying to do whatever it can to augment the “deterrent effect of law enforcement officers,” he said.
The VIPR teams, which conduct random searches at subway stations, ports, bus terminals and sporting events, have been criticized by some members of Congress as being too far removed from the TSA’s mission of securing U.S. airports.
The teams were formed in 2004 following the train bombing in Madrid, according to the TSA’s website. The teams are assembled with the input of local authorities and can include federal air marshals, checkpoint screeners, behavior-detection specialists, as well as experts in explosives, nuclear detection and local police.
VIPR teams were authorized under a law passed to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, according to the TSA website. They can be deployed at random locations and during special events or high-alert periods.
Representative Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, proposed legislation this year that would roll back the TSA’s authority to do random searches in surface-transportation settings. He said agency teams have conducted thousands of unannounced sweeps.
“These teams can appear virtually anytime, anywhere to subject citizens to a search of their person and property,” he said in introducing his legislation.
The TSA hasn’t moved on another policy option discussed in the weeks after the Los Angeles shooting: arming checkpoint screeners. According to a Dec. 12 poll published by the Reason Foundation, 59 percent of Americans support TSA officers carrying guns, while 35 percent are opposed.