Report: TSA's Ground-Based VIPR Teams Are Expensive, Quite Possibly Useless

from the if-we're-so-useless-how-come-we-keep-getting-$$$-every-year-smart-guy? dept

It’s been awhile since we’ve discussed the TSA’s ground-focused efforts. It’s going to get acronym-heavy here shortly, so I’ll set the stage. The TSA oversees more than just airports. It’s also been known to wander around bus stops and weigh stations, hoping to catch less upwardly-mobile terrorists before they can kill us for our freedoms.

The teams dispatched to keep an eye on the ground have perhaps the coolest acronym in government: VIPR. Yes, the cool name probably had the acronym applied after the fact, but being suspicious of buses and truck drivers is what the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response unit is all about. It’s not composed of the retail rejects and petty tyrants the TSA staffs screening areas with. Rather, it makes use of Flying Air Marshals (FAMs) who team up with local law enforcement to hang out at bus depots and weigh stations.

Since VIPR is there to catch terrorists, the Fourth Amendment is generally overlooked to remove the warrant requirement standing in the way of national security efficiency. VIPR units rely on citizen tipsters and their own unassailable hunches to search trucks, buses, rental vehicles, luggage… pretty much anything it can get its hands on. It must be working because no one has blown up a federal building with a Uhaul truck since the last time the government failed to prevent it from happening.

This may be the only metric being used by the TSA to justify the existence of its VIPR squads. A recent Inspector General’s report [PDF] notes VIPR activities blow through a whole lot of taxpayer cash, but seem to have little to show for it.

Despite dedicating approximately $272 million to ground-based activities, including VIPR operations, FAMS could not demonstrate how these activities contributed to TSA’s mission. During our assessment of FAMS’ contributions to TSA’s layered approach to security, we determined that FAMS lacked performance measures for the 24 strategic initiatives and most ground-based activities outlined in its strategic plan. Additionally, FAMS’ VIPR operations performance measures fail to determine the program’s effectiveness.

The best way to feel like something is working well is to never test that theory. The TSA’s mission is literally “travel safety,” so you’d think ground efforts covering two areas where plenty of mileage is racked up (buses, trucks) would be having some measurable effect. But that would be assuming the TSA and its underlings care about operational efficiency and it’s apparent they don’t.

Not only could VIPR units not justify their existence, but the grounded Air Marshals don’t actually know how much is being spent getting nothing useful done.

FAMS could not provide a budget breakout by division or operational area. Without effective performance measures or detailed accounting of funds, FAMS cannot ensure it is maximizing its resources to address its highest risks and cannot measure the value of its investments in these ground-based activities.

The only thing FAMS has in place to measure effectiveness values looking busy over making America safer. The report points out the only metric used by VIPR/FAMS is “output-based” rather than “outcome-oriented.”

FAMS insists the VIPR program mere existence is proof positive of its effectiveness. Can’t bust terrorists if they’re too intimidated by federal agents milling around aimlessly.

FAMS contends that the highly visible nature of VIPR operations deters potential terrorists.

The OIG disagrees with this assessment, pointing out that if FAMS is going to use that argument, it should at least come up with some supporting facts before attempting to rely on it.

FAMS should measure progress based on whether VIPR operations improve the security of our transportation systems, including whether deterrence significantly contributed to this outcome. Measuring VIPR operations’ deterrence capacity is important, considering that FAMS relies on its visible presence to dissuade potential attackers. Without well-developed, outcome-oriented performance measures, FAMS cannot adequately assess whether operations contribute to increased transportation security.

While the TSA did concur with the OIG’s recommendations, it still took the time to complain about the report’s original title. According to the TSA, the draft title was a little too ego-bruising, so it recommended one that softened the blow (and removed FAM from the headline). The OIG met it a little less than halfway.

TSA requested the Office of Inspector General modify the report title to TSA Lacks Effective Performance Metrics for Ground-based Assignments. They asserted there is an implication from the title of the draft report, FAMS Could Not Demonstrate the Value of Its Ground-Based Assignments, that the assignments do not provide value. Although we disagree that our report made such an implication, we modified the title of the final report to FAMS Needs to Demonstrate How Ground-based Assignments Contribute to TSA’s Mission.

I guess the new title restores some hope: FAMS may one day produce supporting evidence for this perceived value. Until then, truckers and bus passengers will be hassled by federal agents hoping to stumble across VIPR program value while performing warrantless searches of people and vehicles.

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Comments on “Report: TSA's Ground-Based VIPR Teams Are Expensive, Quite Possibly Useless”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

"If I can't see it, then they're not there."

FAMS contends that the highly visible nature of VIPR operations deters potential terrorists.

In the same way my tiger repelling rock(something which everyone should have, for obvious reasons) is clearly super effective because I have yet to encounter a tiger outside of a zoo. It’s so effective in fact that it works just sitting on the shelf, with no need to take it with me.

Anonymous Coward says:


I challenge the need for the security theater in the first place. I would rather the TSA budget be used for education and drug and alcohol treatment. At least if we are going to throw away billions a year, we can get some benefit out of it beyond a make-work program. Changing the titles of those involved to make them think they will somehow qualify for Homeland security afterward is just cruel.

Erik (profile) says:

I’m trying to picture what their approach must be, especially at a bus station. I keep picturing the scene in The Fugitive where Harrison Ford is being chased by US Marshals in a Chicago govt building and yells to some nearby cops “Officer, there’s a man in a blue topcoat waving a gun and screaming…at a woman.”

(Couldn’t find it on YouTube)

My first reaction would be to tell them to stay away and call 911.

Anonymous FBI Agent says:

“A recent Inspector General’s report [PDF] notes VIPR activities blow through a whole lot of taxpayer cash, but seem to have little to show for it.”

What we at the FBI do is get an agent to talk a disgruntled religious nutbag into building a “bomb” with no real bomb parts (we give them the parts so we know it’s not really a bomb), then we tell them they need to blow up something with it (we tell them what to blow up with the not-bomb so we know it’s safe), then we arrest the idiot and presto, we’ve successfully stopped a terrorist attack. It’s that easy. The TSA should do the same thing. As long as the numbers some in that we’re doing something, people don’t give a shit if we’re the ones setting up the whole thing and trapping people with it or not.
It’s a win-win.

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