Not any more than it has been for the last four or five years, says Nico Melendez, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman for Los Angeles. And not any more than at any of L.A.'s other stations — Metro, Greyhound, etc.
He says the CBS LA piece today on increased TSA presence at Union Station is probably in response to an article the Los Angeles Times ran last week on the federal agency's expansion from airports (where their porn scans and crotch grabs have become something of a terrifying meme) to ground-level transportation, as well.
But it's not exactly a recent development, according to Melendez.
He says the TSA formed the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (“viper”) teams around five years ago, in response to the terrorist bombings in Madrid. The program grew the second year, but has stayed “relatively the same” since then.
“I really dont know why this story became interesting to the [Los Angeles Times' Washington D.C.] reporter,” he says.
Because of the story, “now all of a sudden everyone's talking about viper teams. I told [TSA officials in Washington], 'Please don't do the story, because everyone's going to think there's something bigger going on.'”
From the Times:
The Transportation Security Administration isn't just in airports anymore. TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country.
… Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.
CBS LA follows up by saying that “rail passengers have started seeing Transportation Security Administration on patrol at Union Station on a more frequent basis.” Our local ABC station has picked up the item, too.
However, Melendez insists the TSA has no plans to ramp up spot security checks at Union Station in particular. He says the viper teams operate on a secret, randomized schedule to amp their visibility at all hubs of transportation, canines and radiation scanners in tow.
Only at events like the Superbowl or the Rose Parade would “there tend to be increased presence of uniformed officers,” says Melendez.
So keep your eye out for the vipes in Pasadena this weekend! Especially you, Occupy.
Do note that they won't nessarily be wearing TSA uniforms, though: The program may be run by the TSA, but Melendez says teams can include local law enforcement and various other federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
(That might explain a Twitter-fueled scare at Union Station earlier this year, when Metro passengers reported seeing federal agents of some kind randomly checking IDs — another way of checking immigration status — at the station. We could never get Metro or any law-enforcement agency to confirm frantic Twitter updates from the scene.)
Anyway. We're generally big on privacy rights and not so hot on the prying, pervy TSA. (Except when officers sing Christmas carols! Adorable!) However, this looks like a classic chain reaction by local media to a larger “evergreen” story on something that's been the standard for a while. (Mother Jones, for one, reported on the viper teams way back in July.) If you've been riding the Metro for the last half decade, you've probably run just as big a chance of bumping into the TSA as you will going forward.
And the viper teams' approach — doing “suspicionless” spot searches in order to scare off terrorists by making their presence known — is classic TSA.
Considering the hell we all go through to keep LAX safe, or at least create the illusion of safety, it's no surprise that the TSA is trolling for terrorists outside the airport, too. Trains have been a classic target of bombers in the past, and a few were reportedly on Osama Bin Laden's list of potential targets.
“It's a great way to make the public think you are doing something,” one East COast professor tells the Times. “It's a little like saying, 'If we start throwing things up in the air, will they hit terrorists?' ''
Yup. Welcome to the overfunded, Bill of Rights-breaching world of American security policy.