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A U.S. congresswoman was alarmed to learn that blue-shirted Transportation Security Administration agents had left the airports in her native state to begin inspecting cars and trucks, as well.
“Many of my constituents discovered this firsthand this past fall, as those familiar blue uniforms and badges appeared on Tennessee highways,” writes Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in a Forbes editorial titled “The TSA Is Coming to a Highway Near You.”
“In October,” she continued, “Tennessee became the first state to conduct a statewide Department of Homeland Security Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) team operation [that] randomly inspected Tennessee truck drivers and cars.”
TSA representative Nico Melendez confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that these VIPR teams have also branched out to conduct security checks at subways, trains and cruise ship ports.
Businessweek reports the total number of TSA agents more than tripled in the last decade, from 16,000 to 51,000, while the Times further reports that VIPR teams conducted more than 9,300 checkpoints and other ops in 2011 alone.
Yet Blackburn is concerned not only with the increasing presence of the TSA, but also with the perceived power they have over Americans. For despite the fancy uniforms and tin badges, she asserts, the TSA’s transportation security officers, or TSOs, aren’t police and shouldn’t appear to be.
Many TSOs, she points out, have had less training that it takes to become a security guard, let alone a law enforcement officer, and yet they stand equipped with uniforms and badges, asserting the authority to scan, X-ray and even pat down travelers in ever-more invasive ways.
“While TSOs may have the appearance of [police], they have neither the authority nor the power,” Blackburn writes. “As TSOs continue to expand their presence beyond our nation’s airports and onto our highways, every American citizen has the right to know that they are not dealing with actual federal law enforcement officers.”
Blackburn explains that when the TSA administratively reclassified its airport screeners as TSOs seven years ago, it also changed the agents’ uniform from black pants and white shirts to the familiar, police-like, blue shirts with metal badges – a change the congresswoman has now resolved to reverse.
Blackburn, therefore, has introduced H.R. 3608, the “Stop TSA’s Reach in Policy,” or STRIP Act, as a way of putting the TSA back in its place.
“This bill will simply overturn the TSA’s administrative decision by prohibiting any TSA employee who has not received federal law enforcement training from using the title ‘officer,’ wearing a police-like uniform or a metal police badge,” she explains. “At its most basic level, the STRIP Act is about truth in advertising.”
H.R. 3608 has garnered 39 cosponsors – all Republicans – and has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security.
“Despite the fact that TSOs are ‘officers’ in name only,” Blackburn explains on her website, “some have chosen to abuse their limited authority against the unsuspecting public. Earlier this year in New Jersey, a TSO was arrested for impersonating an officer, and days before Thanksgiving, a Virginia woman was brutally raped after a TSO approached her in uniform, waving his badge.”
“It is outrageous that in a post 9/11 world … the American people should have to live in fear of those whose job it is to keep us safe,” Blackburn continued. “Congress has sat idly by as the TSA strip searches 85-year-old grandmothers in New York, pats down 3-year-olds in Chattanooga and checks colostomy bags for explosives in Orlando. Enough is enough! The least we can do is end this impersonation, which is an insult to real cops.”