Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 29, 2011

Front door theater and backstage muck: consent of the governed in aviation security

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 29, 2011

Today’s blog was researched and written by a “concerned Department of Homeland Security law enforcement officer.”


How far can consent be stretched?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can be a lightning rod in the ever-evolving world of homeland security.  This is true for the agency and for the much larger operational concept it embodies.  It is not fair to pile on, but TSA often begs for the attention with their actions and possible mission creep into other venues.

The Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) is one of the TSA programs that can generate questions and interesting privacy and authority discussions.  According to TSA in 2007:

VIPR teams work with local security and law enforcement officials to supplement existing security resources, provide deterrent presence and detection capabilities, and introduce an element of unpredictability to disrupt potential terrorist planning activities.

Looking to expand the VIPR concept beyond the rail sector to other forms of mass transit, TSA has been reaching out to several high-volume ferry operators to provide additional security, particularly during the summer months when ridership is at its peak.


VIPR teams enhance TSA’s ability to leverage a variety of resources quickly to increase visible security in any mode of transportation anywhere in the country and are a normal component of TSA’s nimble, unpredictable approach to security.

The TSA VIPR operation at the train station in Savannah, Georgia in late February 2011 sparked another debate about the authorities and responsibilities of TSA Transportation Security Officers (screeners) and TSA Federal Air Marshals well away from the aviation environment.

Does the concept of implied consent to search apply if you wish to travel via commercial aviation and now possibly rail?  The TSA employees reportedly searched adults and children at a train station after they departed the train.   These reported searches have generated concerns because the subjects had already disembarked the stated area of concern or threat (i.e., the train) that supposedly created the “justification” or need for the “consent” search in the first place.

TSA’s Blogger Bob proactively addressed the incident and concerns on the TSA blog site to explain their actions and possible error(s):

A video of Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) screening passengers at a Savannah, Georgia Amtrak station has been gaining quite a bit of attention and many are wondering why we were screening passengers who had just disembarked from a train.

We were wondering the same thing.

The screening shown in the video was done in conjunction with a VIPR operation. During VIPR operations, any person entering the impacted area has to be screened. In this case, the Amtrak station was the subject of the VIPR operation so people entering the station were being screened for items on the Amtrak prohibited items list as seen in the video.

It should be noted that disembarking passengers did not need to enter the station to claim luggage or get to their car.

Signs such as the one shown here are posted at the entrance to the impacted area.

However, after looking into it further, we learned that this particular VIPR operation should have ended by the time these folks were coming through the station since no more trains were leaving the station. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused for those passengers.

So by now, you’re probably wondering what a VIPR is? Is it a type of snake that we misspelled? A really cool car… Nope. It’s a team that’s made up of Federal Air Marshals, Surface Transportation Security Inspectors, Transportation Security Officers, Behavior Detection Officers and Explosive Detection Canine teams. The teams provide a random high-visibility surge into a transit system and work with state and local security, and law enforcement officials to expand the unpredictability of security measures to detect, deter, disrupt or defeat potential criminal and/or terrorist operations.

Ignoring the clear question about their “authority” to conduct searches beyond the implied consent of a passenger at an airport who wishes to fly and not drive to his destination, what is the true benefit or intention of these VIPR operations? Is there value beyond mere presence? Is this an expansion of the agency’s responsibility and authority?    Does the TSA have such abundant resources that they can afford to expand well beyond the aviation environment, if even only for sporadic VIPR operations?

These questions may be unfair after the horrid results of terrorist attacks in the rail environment in Spain and England.  Nevertheless, these VIPR operations may not fully conform to their primary duties in the post 9/11 environment.

Even though the word “transportation” in their agency name encompasses a larger world in the eyes of some people, should TSA employees also be operating at seaports and private marinas where broader authorities and training are required for border searches, inspections and proper interaction with the public.  This is a policy and liability question for discussion by the government and its people.  Where does that discussion happen?  And when?


How successful has TSA been in the aviation environment, almost ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?   A Washington Post article,  Auditors question TSA’s use of and spending on technology, raises many important concerns and questions about the benefit of the billions of dollars expended by TSA for screening:

Before there were full-body scanners, there were puffers. The Transportation Security Administration spent about $30 million on devices that puffed air on travelers to “sniff” them out for explosives residue. Those machines ended up in warehouses, removed from airports, abandoned as impractical.

But government auditors have faulted the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for failing to properly test and evaluate technology before spending money on it.

The GAO has said that the TSA has “not conducted a risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis, or established quantifiable performance measures” on its new technologies. “As a result, TSA does not have assurance that its efforts are focused on the highest priority security needs.”

“They’re adding layers of security and technology, but they need to do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure this is worthwhile,” said Steve Lord of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team, who has reviewed the TSA’s purchases. “They need to look at whether there is other technology to deploy at checkpoints. Are we getting the best technology for the given pot of money? Is there a cheaper way to provide the same level of security through other technology?”

(In addition to TSA related concerns, the DHS Office of the Inspector General recently recommended that the strategic sourcing of detection equipment at DHS could help its agencies save money and standardize its equipment purchases.)

Beyond the established TSA airport screening locations, TSA conducts subsequent passenger baggage searches in the airport concourses after the passengers were already processed by their personnel.  Another recent Washington Post article addressed this issue, describing the experiences of a passenger at the Seattle Seattle-Tacoma International Airport who had reportedly cleared TSA screening and was awaiting her flight.

As she waited for her flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Medford, Ore., last month, Linda Morrison noticed something unusual in the waiting area.

“A lady in a TSA uniform came over, put on her rubber gloves and went up and down the rows of seats, choosing bags to go through,” remembered Morrison, a retired corporate recruiter who lives in Seattle. “She didn’t identify herself, didn’t give a reason for the search. She seemed to be targeting larger carry-on bags.”

Morrison was stunned. She expected to be screened at the designated checkpoint area, or maybe at the gate, where the TSA sometimes randomly checks passengers as they board. But this was different. “To me, it just felt like an illegal search performed by a police state,” she said.

Ms. Morrison is not alone with her concerns.  Not all air travelers concur with these expanded screening operations, according to the Washington Post article:

James Morrissey, a University of Illinois biochemistry professor and a frequent air traveler, prefers “intrusive security.” “TSA has become a law unto itself, and it routinely tramples the civil rights of the flying public,” he says. “Unfortunately, there will always be some people who will be perfectly okay with having their rights trampled in the name of security. But allowing this to happen is very disturbing to me.”

Jeff Stollman, a security and privacy consultant in Philadelphia, thinks that “annoying” better describes air travel in 2011. He’s irked by what he calls “security theater” that offers no real protection against terrorism. “I suspect that a lot of the current controls don’t really do that much to improve security,” he said.

Matthew Gast, a technology writer who works for a San Francisco-based publishing company, believes that it doesn’t matter what it’s called – it’s wrong. The TSA has gone “too far” in trying to protect us from terrorism. “I have not taken a flight since I was forced to allow a TSA agent to put his hands down my pants,” he said. “It’s the only time I felt unsafe in an airport.”

Other frequent travelers have voiced their concerns.  A number of airline pilots reportedly continue to disagree with the current TSA screening procedures resulting in at least one pending lawsuit against the TSA:

Two U.S. commercial airline pilots complained in a lawsuit on Friday that new screening procedures for flight crews — scaled back after complaints by pilots — were still too invasive and violated privacy rights.

Pilots and flight crews complained the new screening exposed them to excessive radiation because they fly so frequently and that extra scrutiny for them was unnecessary because they already control the planes.

According to the TSA blog, TSA is again reviewing a more focused approach through identity based screening and a known traveler program:

For some time now, there has been much talk about implementing a Trusted Traveler program and switching to more of an identity-based approach. Good news… Administrator Pistole is on board with a known traveler approach. He spoke earlier this month at the American Bar Association and talked about his vision for this concept. You can read his remarks here.


All these articles (and the thirteen at the end of this post) raise controversial, but important questions for consideration and discussion:

  • Is the mission to maintain a sufficient level of confidence in air travel by spending money for homeland security theater, or is it to provide a truly secure aviation environment?   What are the cost limitations, if any, in our current economic world?

  • Does it make sense to expend these very valuable and limited resources at the front door when the back doors at many airports are often wide open, given the ability of hundreds of thousands of Security Identification Display Area (SIDA) badged employees to introduce and remove all forms of contraband and other interesting items?  If this threat is not fully appreciated, please spend some time with the agencies conducting smuggling and theft investigations at the airports to evaluate the enormous insider threat (the next threat?).

  • Does a policy of hiring employees with significant criminal convictions and associations affect the quality of screening and/or faith in the process by the American public?  Does this practice also expand the insider threat in the aviation environment?

Unfortunately, the investment of billions of dollars in technology (useful or not) and personnel at the front door of the airports may be the easier challenge to tackle at this time rather than considering the likely next threat to commercial aviation.

However, the central question I want to raise remains, how far can consent be stretched?  Must we sacrifice liberty for security and to what extent? Are we really using our imagination and connecting the dots in a post 9/11 world?

Maybe we should just be quiet and patriotically remove our shoes to support homeland security theater.


  1. http://www.gadling.com/2010/02/04/tsa-forces-richmond-airport-to-issue-access-badge-to-convicted-f/?icid=main%7Cmain%7Cdl5%7Clink6%7Chttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.gadling.com%2F2010%2F02%2F04%2Ftsa-forces-richmond-airport-to-issue-access-badge-to-convicted-f%2F
  2. http://www.denverpost.com/ci_12755515?source=rss
  3. http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=129658&page=1
  4. http://www.wsvn.com/features/articles/carmelcase/MI90493/
  5. http://www.allvoices.com/news/8400162-tsa-agent-arrested-for-helping-drug-suspects-sneak-through-security
  6. http://online.wsj.com/article/AP0eabbe9f157c43c089bf9be4e4d9cd10.html
  7. http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-02-16/news/28622234_1_tsa-officers-baggage-drug-dealer
  8. http://www.myfoxorlando.com/dpp/news/orange_news/013110_TSA_agent_arrested_for_molestation-
  9. http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/TSA-Security-Agent-Arrested-at-LAX-80858482.html
  10. http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-16/justice/new.york.tsa.arrests_1_tsa-officers-third-degree-grand-larceny-bag?_s=PM:CRIME
  11. http://www.smartertravel.com/blogs/today-in-travel/tsa-supervisor-arrested-stole-cash-from-travelers.html?id=6114960
  12. http://www.wreg.com/news/wreg-tsa-security-officer-arrested,0,4936320.story
  13. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/11/26/tsa-worker-accused-assault-jail-time-stalking-harassment/#


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Comment by Lynn N.

March 29, 2011 @ 1:07 am

I am of the opinion that all the virtual strip searches and gropings are designed to soften us to the idea of willingly giving up all of our personal information for the Trusted Traveler program so that the government can track our every move.

Anyone who opposes these egregious measures is free to join us at Boycott Flying, where we are all of like mind … http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392#!/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 29, 2011 @ 6:58 am

This is a great post. Thanks for the effort!

Comment by John

March 29, 2011 @ 9:28 am

America is headed to a police state — all in the name of our “security” of course.

The risk of being killed in my shower is thousands of times higher than in a terrorist attack; the risk of death by driving to avoid flying is tens of thousands of times higher than in a terrorist incident; the risk of being killed by lightening is orders of magnitude greater than in a terrorist attack.

I have personally come within minutes of being a victim of terrorist bombs twice in my life. I am more afraid of my government and the “security apparatus” than I am of terrorists. In what they claim is an attempt to make me safer my government strips my liberty and my dignity every time I enter an airport (and soon a train, bus or ferry terminal, a subway station, and eventually on the highway and even in my own home.)

James Madison said “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Sound familiar?

Pray for the Republic, I fear our children will live in a police state — for their own safety of course.

The terrorists have already won; they have our government doing their dirty work for them.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 29, 2011 @ 11:09 am

The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Perhaps she meant insecure as well!

Excellent post. Why? Because it leaves one wanting to discuss practically everything written in it.

It’s a scream from the top of a building and at the same time, acquiescence to the fact that we’re given very little choice.

It’s a numbers game too. How many people get “screened” daily with little or no incident? But it is so much bigger than that.

We are so focused, no consumed, with preventing the past that we ill define the present. Good and bad, right and wrong, us vs them… wedges being driven between everyone and everything. Is this what its come to? Can there be a root cause?

Yes…I have seen the enemy and it is us.

We, the people are responsible for this. We the people and their representative body, the legislature are responsible for our current “state” of security.

We are over legislated, over protected, overindulged, and overcome by our desires. And we remain uber selective in what we choose to focus on.

Here’s what I mean; 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines from Camp Pendleton are returning from Afghanistan after 6 months of hard, vicious combat. From accounts within the Battalion, harder fighting than being reported. Hundreds of casualties (our sons, husbands, brothers) and thousands of IED’s found.

That’s not in the papers or news shows…instead, we’re getting play by play from Barry Bonds former mistress that his testicles have shrunk and his sexual performance was diminished because he used steroids. Now it’s not the usage but the perjury he’s alleged to have committed that he’s on trial for.

So how much money and time has the government spent to get a guy who lied? Too much.

Where’s the trial for the commanders who covered up the Pat Tillman death? Where’s the trial for the bankers who created the mortgage crisis? Where’s the trial for the legislators who use tax dollars to study the flatulent patterns of aboriginal field mice in Northern California? We are consumed with irrelevant and erroneous pieces of data and I think it’s because we’re too scared of the real stuff.

If we are dropping bombs in Libya to protect people from their leader why than didn’t we get involved in Darfur or Rhwanda? Millions of men, women, and children have been hacked to death, raped, and disfigured. Why weren’t we there too?

Cuz it was too hard.

This is the contrast and context we are faced with and yet, we do virtually nothing. Our priorities are so out of alignment it’s no wonder we have lost the “bubble”.

Can it be said that our expectation and narcissism for trouble free, friction free, and stress free living has enabled a body of elected officials to try and remove freedom by legislating away common sense?

We are surrounded by thousands of unrelenting stupefying rules, laws, and regulations. Those, by the way were put there to protect ourselves from ourselves.

Most recent; an attempt at taxing the miles we drive; “…electronic metering and billing are making per-mile charges a practical option..”. Wow.

Here’s the thing; our tax system, budget system, and body of law makers are so intertwined and complex that somewhere someone thought that was a good idea.

Legislators want to elevate health care costs for obese individuals, but will not address the food industry that has changed the American diet thereby causing the obesity epidemic.

We want more fit soldiers and citizens but refuse to ensure physical education is taught and permeates our culture.

So it gets back to the original theme I started with… screamingly frustrating and defeated acquiescence.

I am not a big Nietzsche fan but two of his quotes capture all of this for me; “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

And that’s what this is about to me…we attempt to try to makes ourselves stronger (by writing more laws) and at the same time keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you go along, it’s numbingly painless but if you push back, you’ll be made an example of.

So again, the appearance of an over entitled under appreciating citizenry wanting complete safety at no cost is such a wildly blinding contradiction that is boggles the mind. There are consequences for everything.

We want abundant and inexpensive power so we use oil and nuclear energy. We want the oil for next to nothing because we deserve it. At whose expense is irrelevant. Nuclear is fine until something goes wrong. We want fast and efficient screening at airports because otherwise it’s inconvenient. No bombs, weapons, or bad guys, just don’t “…touch me junk…”.

We are no longer free or never were as free as we were led to believe and now, we’re surrounded by buckets or rules, regulations, and laws that were put in place for us, by us, to protect us…from us.

This isn’t TSA’s fault, it’s our fault. Apologies for length.

Comment by Donald Quixote

May 24, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

GOP denies TSA money to buy more body scanners

By Keith Laing – 05/13/11 11:03 AM ET

The Transportation Security Administration’s request to expand its controversial body scanner program was rebuffed this week by a Republican-led House committee.

The $40.6 billion Department of Homeland Security 2012 budget released this week by the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee denies the request from President Obama to provide TSA with $76 million to buy 275 more scanners.

The measure includes $7.8 billion for the TSA, which Republicans said was a $125 million increase from current levels but $293 million less than the administration’s budget request. But the much-maligned body scanners were a no-go.

The scanners would have been operated by 535 TSA employees.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a statement that the budget made “the most of our limited resources,” and allowed lawmakers to “rein in unnecessary and wasteful spending in virtually every area of government — including homeland security.”

“This legislation will prioritize funding for frontline operations and programs to uphold the highest level of national security, while trimming back budgets in less essential areas,” said Rogers.

TSA’s scanners have been criticized for invading passengers’ privacy and possibly exposing them to radiation. TSA Administrator John Pistole has defended them, saying in a speech in March that they were “the best possibility we have right now of detecting Christmas Day … type explosives,” a reference to a thwarted 2009 bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.

TSA has come under fire recently for the technique it uses when passengers do not want to go through body scanners: pat-downs. Reports have surfaced of a six-year-old girl and an eight-month-old baby being patted down by TSA agents.

The legislation is scheduled to be marked up by the House Homeland Security subcommittee Friday.

The contents of this site are © 2011 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., a subsidiary of News Communications, Inc.

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