Is The TSA Screening Drivers In Tennessee? Not Anymore

The agency says it was just there for a couple of days. But you will be surprised where else they've been

Drivers in Tennessee may have been alarmed by news reports claiming the Transportation Security Administration is starting to inspect drivers on Tennessee highways, but the TSA says those stories are false.

Well, at least partially false.

The TSA was in Tennessee, the agency said Tuesday, reacting to a rash of blog posts claiming the government agency is beginning to broaden its powers. But it was only there for a couple of days, and focused its security checks on truck drivers.

"It's really startling to see how off-base some of the claims have been," the agency said on its blog.

The stories began after a local news station reported that Tennessee became the first state to invite the TSA in to do random checks on highway drivers, focusing on trucks. The TSA says agency staff came in for just three days – Oct. 18, 19 and 20 – to help the state improve communication between state, federal and local agencies during a crisis. It does not plan to stick around, and won't be setting up permanent checkpoints in the state, the TSA said.

The state set up five screening stations in various locations. In addition to this temporary event, the Tennessee highway patrol is beefing up its truck inspections, to search for bomb materials and other suspicious cargo that could be shipped via the highway.

Local broadcast news footage showed TSA officers wearing blue uniforms and yellow vests standing near trucks and talking to drivers.

"TSA officers did not physically screen drivers during this exercise, as erroneously reported," wrote Bob Burns, a social media analyst for the TSA, on the agency's blog. "The actual vehicle inspections were conducted by the Tennessee State Highway Patrol just the same as they are done every day."

TSA beyond the airport

But the TSA does in fact work outside of airport screening areas. The folks in Tennessee were from the agency's Visible Intermodal Prevention Response (VIPR) team. The VIPR team is comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams.

The VIPR teams are sent into places where people travel – by bus, train, and now apparently highways – to provide a "surge" in screening from time to time. That random surge is meant to deter criminals from trying to carry out their evil deeds, because they never know when they'll be subjected to searches.

But many in the public say that by heading onto highways, TSA is expanding its powers too broadly and invasively.

"The notion of random searches spreading everywhere in American life, whether you're exercising the 'privilege' of going to a sporting event or driving down the highway, amounts to an unconstitutional surrender to terrorism in places where we've never even been hit by it," wrote Conor Friedersdorf in an article on The Atlantic's web site.

TSA leaders have argued for years that they are justified in patting down passengers, looking at semi-naked images of passengers, and confiscating hand creams and lotions because flying is a "privilege."

"I see flying as a privilege that is a public safety issue," Congressional Quarterly quoted TSA head John Pistole saying last year, when defending the new airport screening devices and advanced pat-downs the agency instituted.

But what other kinds of travel are considered a privilege?

Buses, trains and ferries

According to the TSA, buses, trains, and ferries could also be considered privileged travel. The agency was temporarily kicked out of Amtrak stations earlier this year when it screened passengers coming off a train, including patting down a 9-year-old boy.

Following the train bombings in Madrid in 2007, TSA beefed up its train station presence for a while.

Earlier that year, it had agents at the Point Judith (Block Island) ferry terminal in Rhode Island, and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in N.J. Travelers heading to Martha's Vineyard also saw TSA agents at the ferry terminal in Massachusetts.

So it is not too far-fetched to believe the TSA could determine highway travel is another type of travel that needs to be monitored, although it could prove to be a logistical nightmare. There are thousands of trucks stops around the country.

Although you may encounter TSA on the highways one day, rest assured, there is one place the TSA has no intentions (at least not yet) of going:

"We are not getting into the business of body cavity searches," Pistole said back in 2010. "That's not where we are."

Here is the original local news story which caused the kerfuffle:

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