When traveling by air, Americans expect to encounter the security methods of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Like clockwork, we take off our shoes and submit to X-ray scanners, invasive pat downs, and baggage searches. But most Americans are unaware that the TSA is not just for airports anymore.
Since 2005, the TSA has deployed Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams to conduct thousands of unannounced, random sweeps of bus, train, and subway stations as well as ferry terminals. VIPR teams have the authority to enter any transportation facility – anytime, anywhere – and subject citizens to a search of their person and property.
But the reach of the TSA goes far beyond mass transit systems and into our highways and private vehicles. For example, VIPR conducted an operation on Tennessee highways in which drivers who passed through random checkpoints were subject to an inspection, costing drivers their time and fuel without good reason.
In fact, the reach of the agency has extended so far that the Transportation Security Administration can screen individuals not engaged in travel. VIPR teams are authorized to cover large events and have already appeared at NFL games and NASCAR races.
The type of search that Americans would expect to submit to before boarding an airplane could come without warning while commuting to work, running errands, or attending a sporting event. Simply put, there is no conceivable aspect of life that is free from the TSA and its VIPR squads.
Yet, despite its all encompassing reach, the VIPR program has little record of making the American people safer.
VIPR searches are typically random and thus are not based on any actual specific threat or criminal activity. So it should come as no surprise that a 2011 Los Angeles Times article revealed that after VIPR teams had conducted thousands of operations, “TSA officials say they have no proof that roving VIPR teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety.” The TSA now refuses to comment on the effectiveness of VIPR teams to foil terrorist attacks, but it is willing to take credit for deterrence, which presumably is achieved by their mere presence.
The TSA VIPR program does not promote security but rather security theater. Perhaps no example more clearly demonstrates this than a VIPR operation in Savanna, Georgia in which Amtrak passengers were searched after they had disembarked from the train. This served absolutely no purpose in securing the safety of the traveling public.
The TSA’s mission creep from the limited scope of air travel to every conceivable mode of transportation, as well as large events, is an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and impedes the ability of every American to travel freely. Actual threats to our security should be dealt with by law enforcement agencies at various levels of government.
We must protect the American people while also keeping their Fourth Amendment rights intact.
To that end, I have introduced the Freedom of Travel Act. This legislation would protect the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens by abolishing the VIPR program as well as denying the TSA the authority to conduct security screenings outside of an airport.
The Fourth Amendment is not just a limitation on government action. It is a fundamental component of the principle of liberty that contributed to American independence.
The Fourth Amendment was largely a response to British “writs of assistance,” which served as general warrants that permitted almost limitless searches of colonial homes and ships by British officials. In 1761, at the Old State House in Boston, an attorney named James Otis forcefully attacked the writs as an infringement of individual rights. John Adams was so inspired by the eloquence of Otis’s arguments that he wrote, “then and there the child of independence was born.”
Today, the government that Otis and Adams helped found claims an almost limitless power to search, seize, and inconvenience supposedly free citizens not suspected of any crime.
It is time to end the steady erosion of the Fourth Amendment. As free men and women, we must combat the notion that law abiding citizens are at all times subject to be searched by their government. The Freedom of Travel Act would take a significant step in restoring the Fourth Amendment by putting to an end the existence of VIPR teams and halting the TSA’s mission creep.