Thursday, March 24, 2011


The first rule about the Transportation Security Administration’s VIPR program?

Police officers working under VIPR may search you or your truck at a moment’s notice without a specific reason.

The second rule? Refer back to rule one.

Getting additional information about VIPR turned out to be “one of those stories,” in reporterspeak. For nearly a week straight of our morning editorial meeting of Land Line Now and Land Line Magazine staffers, I mentioned my TSA VIPR story as part of my list of stories.

But every day new challenges would throw a wrench at the planned article.

It’s not that the government spokespeople won’t talk about VIPR – it’s just that the program’s stated goals of being unpredictable made most of my questions difficult for them to answer.

Let’s explain VIPR.

VIPR stands for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. Teams of TSA officers perform the blitzes while working with local law enforcement agencies. VIPR teams may be used to “supplement existing resources, provide detection and response capabilities and expand the unpredictability of security measures to keep our transportation systems safe and secure,” a TSA news release on the program states.

Basically, the 9-11 Commission wanted to discourage the relative ease with which terrorists had scouted, videotaped and performed test runs of what they carried out on September 11, 2001. To keep potential terrorists at bay, the feds reason, they use a combination of mostly local police and some TSA officers to make unpredictable searches.

VIPR searches were increased in 2004 after the Madrid train bombing.

In February, the federal agency’s VIPR enforcement blitz at a Georgia train station angered many Amtrak passengers by performing extensive searches before allowing the passengers to leave the terminal.

TSA explained in a blog post on the agency’s website explained that the Amtrak passengers shouldn’t have been searched because they were leaving the train station.

The TSA blog post had received 152 comments by this week, more than any other post on the blog’s first page.

In a phone interview, Nelson Minerly, TSA spokesman, pointed out to me that TSA’s mission statement says the agency will “protects the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

Too many checkpoints wouldn’t keep people moving.

To protect people and commerce, said Minerly, who happens to be friendly and as helpful as he was allowed to be, VIPR aims to be unpredictable.

Checkpoints may be set up. A truck stop, for example, could be designated, and trucks and truck drivers could be searched as part of a VIPR investigation.

What about imposters, I reasoned. Truck drivers sometimes park in areas where they are harassed by local yokels and certain professionals alike. An OOIDA member had his truck searched in 2007 in an operation that upset a truck stop general manager.

Anyone who is within a VIPR enforcement area will see many law enforcement officers, likely including uniformed officers. Minerly also said any citizen may request a uniformed law enforcement officer to arrive on the scene if they are suspicious about the legitimacy of an investigation.

Truckers, I said, are a patriotic lot. Nearly a third of OOIDA members are military veterans, and thousands of OOIDA members have signed up to participate in the First Observer transportation security program, administered by TSA. OOIDA is a subcontractor for First Observer, which allows truckers to report suspicious and potential criminal or terrorist behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of a 911 phone call.

But I asked whether late night or early morning truck searches without an explanation would go over with CDL holders.

Will VIPR be a burden for truckers?

“Typically it’s a painless program, but it does provide significant security benefit,” Minerly told me. Also, he said, the VIPR program will be explained to anyone who is searched as a result of a VIPR investigation.

They comply with DOT inspections, but OOIDA members don’t stand for troopers going through trashcans and asking inappropriate questions.

Some truck drivers have told TSA they appreciated VIPR searches and the program’s ability to help protect critical infrastructure. In fact, none have expressed negatives about the program.

Ask me whether I believe that, and I’m afraid I’d need to take a cue from VIPR.

“That’s classified,” I’d say.