By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Teams of undercover air marshals and uniformed law enforcement officers will fan out to bus and train stations, ferries, and mass transit facilities across the country this week in a new test program to conduct surveillance and "counter potential criminal terrorist activity in all modes of transportation," according to internal federal documents.
According to internal Transportation Security Administration documents, the program calls for newly created "Visible Intermodal Protection and Response" teams -- called "Viper" teams -- to take positions in public areas along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and Los Angeles rail lines; ferries in Washington state; and mass transit systems in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Viper teams will also patrol the Washington Metro system.
A Viper team will consist of two air marshals, one TSA bomb-sniffing-canine team, one or two transportation security inspectors, one local law enforcement officer, and one other TSA employee. Some members of the team will be obvious to the traveling public and wear jackets bearing the TSA name on the back. Others will be plainclothes air marshals scanning the crowds for suspicious people. It is unclear how many Viper teams will be on patrol through the New Year holiday, but air marshal officials confirm that they will be at seven locations across the country.
"TSA is going to extend its outreach into other modes of transportation," said David Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service. "We think this is a very good approach to test our tools and quickly deploy resources in the event of a situation or a threat. It shows we could be at any of these places."
Air marshals will remain on flights this holiday season, while at several airports -- including Dulles International -- TSA is training dozens of screeners in behavior recognition techniques to identify suspicious passengers. Such training had, for the most part, been limited to air marshals. In addition, travelers will be able to take some sharp items previously prohibited, such as small scissors and tools, in carry-on luggage.
TSA officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the agency is expanding training for a limited group of screeners at other airports in preparation for the holiday travel season. Those airports serve Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Cincinnati, New York, Houston, Detroit and Chicago. TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the techniques include taking notice of high levels of stress, anxiety or deception. "This is a part of a larger effort to add more complex layers of security that cannot be manipulated by those seeking to do us harm," Clark said.
Federal officials said there is no new intelligence indicating that terrorists are interested in targeting transportation modes. Rather, the Transportation Security Administration is trying to expand the role of air marshals, who have been eager to conduct surveillance activities beyond the aircraft, and provide a beefed-up law enforcement presence at bus, train and public transit stations over the busy holiday period.
Air marshals "are trained to covertly detect potential criminal terrorist pre-attack surveillance and other suspicious activity," states a TSA memo written by Patrick F. Sullivan, deputy assistant director of TSA's Federal Air Marshal Service flight operations office. Air marshals "assigned to support the VIPR team will also be looking for individuals attempting to avoid or depart areas upon visual observation of the VIPR teams."
The concept of employing more surveillance techniques to identify unusual behavior -- typically, signs of nervousness, such as sweating and avoiding eye contact -- has been around for some time. In London, police used the tactic after the terrorist bombings on the Underground to track and then shoot a young man wearing a backpack who was running from police. The man was later determined to be unconnected to the suspected bombers.
Some security officials question whether air marshals should be conducting surveillance or any operations outside of an aircraft cabin. The marshals spend hours training in such tactics as shooting a gun in the close confines of an aircraft cabin. Officials say that marshals have been trained to notice and report suspicious activity and that they do so regularly, even though it has not resulted in netting a suspected terrorist. Air marshal training was called into question last week, after two marshals shot and killed an American Airlines passenger in Miami who allegedly claimed to have a bomb in his backpack.
"In one word, this is absurd," to put air marshals in bus and train stations, said Doug Laird, a security consultant and former head of security for Northwest Airlines. "This is clearly a responsibility of the local jurisdictions. They don't have enough air marshals to carry out the mission they are supposed to do. To spread them even thinner dilutes the reason they are there in the first place."
Adams, of the Air Marshal Service, however, said marshals are the law enforcement arm of the TSA, which is charged with overseeing all modes of transportation -- not just aviation. "This is part of our responsibility to assist in the non-aviation domain," he said. "The whole purpose is that people will not know when we're going to be there or if we are going to be there. It's a preventative approach."
News researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.