Friday, March 11, 2011

Amtrak police chief bars TSA from some security operations

Amtrak police chief bars Transportation Security Administration from some security operations

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In late February, the Transportation Security Administration took over the Amtrak station in Savannah, Ga., and thoroughly searched every person who entered. None of the passengers got into trouble, but the TSA certainly did — big time.

Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor said he first thought a blog posting about the incident was a joke. When he discovered that the TSA’s VIPR team did at least some of what the blog said, he was livid. He 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.

“When I saw it, I didn’t believe it was real,” O’Connor said. When it developed that the posting on an anti-TSA blog was not a joke, “I hit the ceiling.”

Video of the screening is available at: www.liveleak.com.

O’Connor said the TSA VIPR teams have no right to do more than what Amtrak police do occasionally, which has produced few if any protests and which O’Connor said is clearly within the law and the Constitution. More than a thousand times, Amtrak teams (sometimes including VIPR) have performed security screenings at Amtrak stations. These screenings are only occasional and random, and inspect the bags of only about one in 10 passengers. There is no wanding of passengers and no sterile area. O’Connor said the TSA violated every one of these rules.

A posting in late February to the Transportation Security Administration’s blog, which serves as a public relations tool of the TSA, tried to explain why TSA agents took over the Amtrak station in Savannah. But O’Connor said the “facts” as posted on the TSA blog were incorrect. He said the blog indicated that Amtrak had approved of the operation, but it had not. He called the TSA’s posting on blog.tsa.gov “inaccurate and insensitive.” As of the time this story was filed, the same posting remained on the blog.

A TSA spokesman said he could not elaborate on the blog posting.

O’Connor said he must take some of the blame because he did not more carefully observe what the VIPR teams were doing. He said the TSA had apologized repeatedly to him, but they must agree to firm restrictions before he will consider allowing them back on Amtrak property.

The search was first revealed on the blog gizmodo.com.

However, that blog got it at least half wrong. The TSA did not, as the blog said, funnel people who arrived by train into the station for a search. Instead, the TSA took over the station and posted notes outside saying that anyone who entered would be “subject to mandatory screening.” Those who know the Savannah station realize that it generally is not necessary for anyone arriving or departing by train to go into the station. It is much easier to park the car or be dropped off near the platform.

Therefore, why was the TSA searching only anyone entering the station? It might even be easier to explain why they might have searched everyone. For instance, such questions as, did they have a tip someone was carrying a small atomic bomb? In the end, it is not even possible to discern a reason for what they actually did. Why search only people unfortunate enough to need to enter the station – people who needed to buy tickets, an elderly person who was dropped off and needed a place to sit while waiting, a mom whose infant badly needed a diaper change?

The group involved is TSA’s VIPR operation, which deals with surface transportation. VIPR is short for “visible intermodal protection and response.” It turns out that VIPR has been far more active than imagined. Teams have searched bus passengers all over the country, have done similar things at train stations, and have even blocked traffic on bridges to search trucks and cars. That even included the busy Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Washington.

The VIPR teams were rolled out on Dec. 12, 2005, then promptly pulled back two days later when it turned out that no one had informed numerous local governments. It was a fiasco. Several local jurisdictions said they had no interest and opted out, including the Washington Metro system. But teams, moving slowly, have apparently re-infiltrated surface transportation facilities. Unlike the TSA at airports, these teams have access to firepower. Although the TSA is not allowed to carry weapons, some armed Federal Air Marshals have been switched to ground duty.

One major unanswered question is: why? What purpose is being served other than to justify employment? You will certainly hear more about this in Trains.

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