Monday, July 25, 2011

Our protectors? "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."

"The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d'etat, with battering rams and marauding militia," writes constitutional attorney John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. "[The police state] will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall."

So begins his article about the Federal Transportation Security Administration's (TSA's) VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams.

The TSA explains VIPR as being "Comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams" designed to "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."

Hey! What's not to like about that?

Read on!

Perhaps we should remind ourselves of where we've come in the last 10 years. And consider whether the billions of dollars the U.S. government has invested in airport security have really been all that wisely and well invested. If the federal government were involved in true intelligence gathering, would it really authorize an agency that still includes staff members whose criminal records have never been checked (but among which many members have been found to have major criminal records!) . . .
  • Would it really authorize such an agency to force a 95-year-old wheelchair-bound cancer patient to remove her adult diaper during the course of a security check (Whitehead)?
  • Would we have an agency composed of non-law enforcement personnel staging security drills in crowded airports--drills that bring in real law officers packing real weapons with live ammunition . . . and then apologizing, "Oops! Sorry about that! We forgot to inform you!" (Minneapolis Star Tribune; Mike Adams)?
  • Would we have government agents provided the opportunity to do what Pythias Brown of Maplewood, NJ, and another TSA agent--unnamed in the article--were doing for untold periods of time: stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of goods from passengers' baggage?
  • Would federal officers be in a position to "prank" passengers with bags (or even vials) of fake cocaine: "Do you have anything in your bag that you’re not supposed to?" "Did this come out of your bag?" (The Smoking Gun)
Would these things be occurring to any- and everyone who travels by air in "the land of the free and the home of the brave"?

I think not!

But let's get back to Whitehead's story.

For now, under the pretext of protecting the nation's infrastructure (roads, mass transit systems, water and power supplies, telecommunications systems, and so on) against criminal or terrorist attacks, these VIPR teams are being deployed to do random security sweeps of nexuses of transportation, including ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. VIPR teams are also being deployed to elevate the security presence at certain special events such as the Democratic National Convention. Sweep tactics include the use of x-ray technology, pat-downs and drug-sniffing dogs, among other things. Unfortunately, these sweeps are not confined to detecting terrorist activity. Federal officials have admitted that transit screening is also intended, at least in some instances, to detect illegal immigration or even cash smuggling.

Incredibly, in the absence of any viable threat, VIPR teams--roving SWAT teams, with no need for a warrant--have conducted 8,000 such searches in public places over the past year. For example, in February 2011, a VIPR team conducted a raid at an Amtrak station in Georgia, not only patting down all passengers--both adults and small children alike--entering the station but also those departing. In a characteristic display of incompetence, TSA agents co-opted the station and posted a sign on the door informing patrons that anyone who entered would be subject to mandatory screening (this, despite the fact that boarding passengers can easily bypass the station entirely and access the boarding area directly). One officer rummaged through a passenger's hand luggage and even smelled her perfume. A vacationing firefighter roped into the search commented, "It was just not professional. It was just weird...we are being harassed by the TSA." In fact, when Amtrak Police Chief John O'Connor was informed of VIPR's activities, he "hit the ceiling" and banned VIPR personnel from entering Amtrak property.

These raids, conducted at taxpayer expense on average Americans going about their normal, day-to-day business, run the gamut from the ridiculous to the abusive. In Santa Fe, TSA agents were assigned to conduct searches at a high school prom. At the port of Brownsville, in Texas, VIPR units searched all private and commercial vehicles entering and exiting the port. Although the TSA admitted the search was not conducted in response to any specific threat, VIPR agents nonetheless engaged in "thorough" inspections of each and every vehicle. In a training exercise in Atlanta, VIPR teams allegedly arrested a man after discovering a small amount of marijuana in his semi-trailer. In San Diego, a VIPR investigation at a trolley station resulted in the deportation of three teenagers apprehended on their way to school.

In April 2011, Homeland Security official Gary Milano stated that VIPR teams involved in a raid at a Tampa bus station, again conducted in the absence of any threat, were there "to sort of invent the wheel in advance in case we have to, if there ever is specific intelligence requiring us to be here. This way us and our partners are ready to move in at a moment's notice." He added, "We'll be back. We won't say when we'll be back. This way the bad guys are on notice we'll be back."

Likewise, in an intimidating display of force in June 2011, VIPR conducted a vast training exercise--that is, a military raid--covering more than 5,000 square miles' worth of crucial infrastructure sites such as bridges, gas lines, and power plants between Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The raid included members of 70 different agencies, over 400 state and federal agents, Black Hawk helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, and Coast Guard vessels. Although the surveillance activities constituted an exercise rather than a response to an actual terrorist threat, the sweep was clearly calculated to produce a deterrent effect. According to TSA official Michael Cleveland, the purpose of the exercise was to "have a visible presence and let people know we're out here...It can be a deterrent."

The question that must be asked, of course, is who exactly is the TSA trying to target and intimidate? Not would-be terrorists, given that scattershot pat-down stings are unlikely to apprehend or deter terrorists. In light of the fact that average citizens are the ones receiving the brunt of the TSA's efforts, it stands to reason that we've become public enemy number one. We are all suspects. And how does the TSA deal with perceived threats? Its motto, posted at the TSA's air marshal training center headquarters in the wake of 9/11, is particularly telling: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."
I couldn't believe that last line. "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."? Our protectors? Really? They're saying that about us?

I looked for evidence. Whitehead must have made that up. It must be an urban legend.

Disturbing to me: I have been unable to locate photographic evidence of the sign. I have been able to find many references to it.

Interesting, however: I have found no Snopes article about the phrase. Nor do I find any denials that the phrase is as Whitehead and, long before him, Reason magazine, claim.

Maybe the phrase was initially directed at external threats to Americans' security. At this point, I think it's becoming clear, the meaning is far more sinister.

As Whitehead concludes his article:
Expanding VIPR to its logical conclusion necessitates a police state. Additionally, VIPR, by expanding intrusive searches beyond the spatially circumscribed confines of airports, regularizes abusive behavior by government officials and inculcates submissiveness and subservience on the part of the average citizen.

In effect, VIPR paves the way psychologically for the implementation of totalitarian apparatuses of control. Furthermore, by entrenching frequent, intrusive searches in the American mindset as an unquestioned component of everyday life, programs like VIPR actually serve to reduce the level of protection afforded citizens by the Constitution. And once VIPR has accrued a sufficient bureaucracy, it will be virtually impossible to eradicate.
Oh. Yeah. About that. VIPR's cost in 2009: $30 million. TSA Chief John Pistole's funding request for VIPR for 2012? "[C]lose to $110 million."
blog comments powered by Disqus