By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
December 20, 2011, 5:03 p.m.
Reporting from Charlotte, N.C.—
A Transportation Security Administration behavior-detection officer patrols a train station in Charlotte, N.C. (Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times / December 11, 2011)
Rick Vetter was rushing to board the Amtrak train in Charlotte, N.C., on a recent Sunday afternoon when a canine officer suddenly blocked the way.
Three federal air marshals in bulletproof vests and two officers trained to spot suspicious behavior watched closely as Seiko, a German shepherd, nosed Vetter’s trousers for chemical traces of a bomb. Radiation detectors carried by the marshals scanned the 57-year-old lawyer for concealed nuclear materials.
When Seiko indicated a scent, his handler, Julian Swaringen, asked Vetter whether he had pets at home in Garner, N.C. Two mutts, Vetter replied. “You can go ahead,” Swaringen said.
The Transportation Security Administration isn’t just in airports anymore. TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country.
“We are not the Airport Security Administration,” said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte. “We take that transportation part seriously.”
The TSA’s 25 “viper” teams — for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response — have run more than 9,300 unannounced checkpoints and other search operations in the last year. Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.
According to budget documents, the department spent $110 million in fiscal 2011 for “surface transportation security,” including the TSA’s viper program, and is asking for an additional $24 million next year. That compares with more than $5 billion for aviation security.
TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving viper teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence.