Picture of TSA agents in Amtrak station

TSA agents join local police at a train station.

Photograph by Andrew Dickerman, Providence Journal

By Christopher Elliott

From the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Like it or not, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an unavoidable presence at American airports, from the full-body scanners and “enhanced” pat-downs to shoes on the conveyor belt and ziplock bags filled with trial-size toothpaste.

But it’s becoming almost as difficult to avoid the TSA outside the airport, too. Today, you can be pulled over at a highway checkpoint staffed by TSA agents, courtesy of the agency’s VIPR program (that’s short for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, and pronounced “viper,” by the way). Its most high-profile traffic stop happened in Tennessee in 2011—a training exercise, officials insisted. This year, TSA administrator John S. Pistole requested funding for 37 teams of roving screeners to the tune of $100 million.

You might encounter a TSA screening area when you’re at the train station or the subway. In one memorable 2011 incident, Amtrak passengers disembarking in Savannah, Georgia, were screened before they could leave the station. TSA agents have even been spotted at NFL games and political conventions. According to Government Executive, an extra 55 TSA screeners were on hand to help the Secret Service check delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last summer. That’s a real stretch of the agency’s mandate, even for the most security-obsessed traveler.

Is this mission creep? To agency insiders, the answer is: Of course not. TSA is just fulfilling its objectives. “TSA’s mission is to secure transportation systems,” writes Pistole on the TSA website. No qualifiers about aviation security, thanks very much. Defenders of the agency say that it is precisely because of its broad mandate that it has (together with other law enforcement agencies) prevented another 9/11. “By some measures, the TSA has scored a clear success,” observed the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly in a recent cover story. “No terrorist has staged a successful attack on a flight from a U.S. airport since September 11.” One of the most ardent defenders of the TSA is travel guidebook guru Arthur Frommer. “Every time I am patted down, I am grateful for security agents who take their jobs seriously,” he wrote on his blog. “I am conscious of the fact that their zealousness is deterring all sorts of would-be terrorists from attempting to carry weapons onto planes.”

Critics say there’s no causal relationship between a TSA with a sprawling mandate and the absence of a terrorist attack. Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, says screeners are conducting the law-enforcement equivalent of a clumsy police dragnet. “They’re throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks.” He and others are troubled that the random roadside checkpoints and the intermittent security screenings at subway and train stations could become permanent. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center are taking a lead in advocating limits to what they view as an expansive TSA. The center is suing the federal government on the decision to deploy body scanners and to ensure the right of the public to have its views heard.

The consequences of going too far in either direction could be serious. We have to carefully balance security against privacy; otherwise we risk becoming a show-me-your-papers-please nation with troubling echoes of other closed societies. “Governments good and bad have always cited national security, the prevention of terrorism, and the defense of freedom as their excuses for surveillance and control of people’s movements,” says Edward Hasbrouck, a privacy advocate who is one of the leading voices against TSA overreach. “But we can’t defend freedom by adopting measures that prevent us from exercising the rights we profess to believe in.”

Has the TSA prevented one or more terrorist attacks? That’s unanswerable. But I think the price has been high. And I fear that the cost could rise, just to make us feel safe when we travel. We need to order up just enough security as is necessary—and no more.

Previous attempts to define and limit the TSA have failed, despite a blistering 2012 congressional report that recommended downsizing and privatizing parts of the TSA, and several bills designed to contain the agency’s reach. TSA reform didn’t register as an election-year concern, and neither candidate took a meaningful stance on the issue. Obviously, no political party wants to be the first to reexamine the security apparatus created more than a decade ago, and risk the political repercussions if there’s another 9/11-style attack.

Fellow travelers, let’s call for one sensible step: Revise the TSA’s mission statement to limit its activity to air transportation. After all, we have local and state police, highway patrols, Customs and Border Protection, and, if necessary, the National Guard to protect roads, bridges, railways, and the occasional Super Bowl game. Adding a single word—“air”—to its mission would end its controversial VIPR program. One word would put the TSA’s enormous budget into perspective, allowing lawmakers to ask—and answer—the question: How much do we want to spend on aviation security? I’m willing to bet it would be significantly less than the $7.4 billion Americans currently pay for the TSA.

Editor at large Christopher Elliott addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail your story to celliott@ngs.org.

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