When the Minnesota Vikings faced off against the Green Bay Packers last weekend in Minneapolis, the big story wasn't that the Vikings defeated the Pack to secure a wildcard berth.
It was, strangely, the TSA.
That's right, the agency assigned to protect America's transportation systems was patrolling the Metrodome. Nathan Hansen, a North St. Paul, Minn., attorney, snapped a few photos of the agents before the game, and broadcast them on Twitter.
"I don't think any federal law enforcement agency needs anything to do with a football game," he told me yesterday.
Turns out the TSA goes to NFL games and political conventions and all kinds of places that have little or nothing to do with air travel. It even has a special division called VIPR -- an unfortunate acronym for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team -- that conducts these searches.
Few people know that $105 million of their taxpayer dollars are going to fund 37 VIPR teams in 2012, whose purpose is to "augment" the security of any mode of transportation. They don't realize that these VIPR teams can show up virtually anytime, anywhere and without warning, subjecting you to a search of your vehicle or person.
That's not a fringe observation, by the way. Even the most mainstream news outlets have reported on the problems of these random checkpoints. And it's being observed by mainstream news personalities, not just consumer advocates with a long list of grievances from their constituents.
But almost no one noticed when the Department of Homeland Security signaled its intent to broaden the scope of its off-airport searches even more in 2013. Buried deep in the Federal Register in late November was a notice that could dramatically shift the focus of transportation security. It involves the government's efforts to "establish the current state of security gaps and implemented countermeasures throughout the highway mode of transportation" through the Highway Baseline Assessment for Security Enhancement (BASE) program.
As far as I can tell, TSA is just asking questions at this point. "Data and results collected through the Highway BASE program will inform TSA's policy and program initiatives and allow TSA to provide focused resources and tools to enhance the overall security posture within the surface transportation community," it says in the filing.
But they wouldn't be wasting our money asking such questions unless they planned to aggressively expand VIPR at some point in the near future. And that means TSA agents at NFL games, in subways and at the port won't be the exception anymore -- they will be the rule.
Still, some will argue, what's wrong with that? After all, VIPR teams were formed in response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and shouldn't we play it safe?
VIPR may be limited to a few men and women in uniform with dogs, patrolling a sold-out stadium or convention center for now. But it's not hard to imagine the next step, to a permanent presence with full-body scans and pat-downs. It's a scene straight out of a dystopian novel and a direct affront to the Fourth Amendment values we take for granted in the United States.
On another level, there's this: The TSA was created mainly to safeguard our airports from another 9/11 attack. Being scanned or interrogated by an airport screener at a ballgame makes about as much sense as getting pulled over for speeding by a National Guardsman rattling down the Interstate in an Abrams tank. You would pull over for him, sure -- but you would also have a lot of questions.
If VIPR teams are somehow more effective than the highway patrol or the local police at stopping terrorists -- and I'm open to that possibility -- then the Department of Homeland Security should show us that evidence. In the absence of that, we're left to assume that the VIPR agents have the requisite 120 hours of training required of other agents, and that they are little more than warm bodies that will deter petty criminals from running cigarettes across a state line.
As we start 2013, the TSA is asking the wrong questions. Instead of being a solution in search of a problem, it should be trying to slim down, get smarter about the way it screens airline passengers and leave the rest to the well-trained professionals they will never be able to replace.
If we don't say something about the TSA's uncontrollable spread into almost every aspect of the American travel experience, we could one day soon find ourselves answering to someone in a paramilitary blue uniform whenever we set foot outside our door.
That's not the America you want to live in, is it?