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DHS Inspector General: VIPR Program 'Bifurcated'

The Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) program of random pop-up patrols and screening checkpoints to deter terrorism at the nation’s most critical transportation hubs is “bifurcated” and needs to be centralized,according to a reviewof the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG found that the operational control of VIPR field personnel and assets was split between Federal Security Directors (FSDs), who are generally responsible for passenger screening operations, and Supervisory Federal Air Marshals in Charge, (SACs) who are generally responsible for counterterrorism patrols, both of whom report to different offices within TSA. This divide, the OIG found, means that the coordination of VIPR teams relies on a good working relationship between FSDs and SACs in their geographic areas of responsibility. In some areas, the report notes, FSDs and SACs create separate VIPR operations and coordinate sparingly.

To rectify what it considers an inefficiency, the OIG recommended that TSA give one office within the agency decision-making authority over the VIPR program to ensure FSDs and SACs are receiving and reading from the same script. TSA, however, disagreed.

In a letter in response to the OIG review, TSA Administrator John Pistole wrote:

"Given the designation of management responsibility and the collaborative management structure of the program organization, TSA believes its organization structure best serves the interests of internal and external stakeholders and does not intend to make additional organizational change."

The OIG, however, did not budge from its recommendation.

"Without additional modification, the VIPR Program will continue to operate inefficiently," the OIG warned. "Assigning decision-making authority to one TSA headquarters office to ensure that overall field operations, program activity and engagement, and oversight are coordinated effectively is prudent."

The VIPR program was created in late 2005 by former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley as a visible deterrent to terrorists planning to attack transportation infrastructure, such as airports and subway stations. In 2008, Congress began directly allocating money for the program, funding 10 teams.

Today, 25 teams, with 12 more in the pipeline, combine random and intelligence-based patrols and passenger screening operations at the nation’s biggest transportation hubs. Although flexible, VIPR teams can consist of federal air marshals (FAMs), surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers, and explosives detection canine teams.

While the OIG reported that the program has improved since its creation, the watchdog had additional recommendations for the program, including redistributing more teams to high-risk areas, improving its public relations, and increasing its team members understanding of their authority when operating in the mass transit environment.

After reviewing the distribution of VIPR teams, the OIG concluded that some teams are overwhelmed and overextended because of deployments to areas with a disproportionately high concentration of critical transportation infrastructure. This discovery led the OIG to recommend TSA use risk-based methodology to redistribute teams to areas with higher concentrations of high-risk targets.

Again, TSA disagreed with the OIG recommendation.

“The VIPR program regularly assesses the deployment patterns of each team and compares that to the available high-risk infrastructure in the area of responsibility...for each team,” Pistole replied. "To date, the analyses have not revealed operational problems that require redistribution of existing allocations, rather than surging assets as necessary."

Also, all VIPR teams are ready to respond anywhere in the country if credible intelligence necessitates it, according to Pistole. The OIG also noted that the 12 new teams funded by Congress, which should be all operational sometime in September, will be distributed using a risk-based methodology with New York City and Washington, D.C., receiving the most reinforcements.

Public outreach was another matter of concern for the OIG. The report recommended that the VIPR program work on its public relations, stating “"greater public awareness and outreach are needed to enhance knowledge and acceptance of the program." The report noted that passengers felt anxious, afraid, and insecure upon seeing VIPR teams, particularly FAMs dressed in full tactical gear.

According to the report, the OIG found that "Without prior knowledge about the team or its purpose, stakeholers initially received negative reactions and opinions from passengers encountering VIPR teams. Once passengers were more knowledgeable about the program and its intent, they typically viewed the teams favorably.”

The OIG believes crafting a public communications campaign for VIPR similar to DHS’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign could make the public more comfortable with the pop-up counterterrorism patrols and screening. TSA agreed.

Despite weak public relations, the program’s outreach to its federal, state, local, and private partners and stakeholders has been successful, leading to good working relationships and security benefits across the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

“As a result, most partners and stakeholders said they value the program as a force multiplier and an extension of their security assets, and describe the teams as professional, willing to work and take advice, flexible, and responsive to partner and stakeholder needs,” the OIG noted.

Another issue addressed by the OIG is FAMs’ legal authority, especially in the mass transit environment. For instance, some FAMs are unsure whether they have the authority to detain and question a person in the mass transit environment like they do in the aviation environment, where they are the lead law enforcement agency, especially when they’re acting as a force multiplier for local or state law enforcement.

This kind of uncertainty, according to the report, has led some field offices to field VIPR teams less aggressively. FAMs on VIPR teams have also told OIG investigators that they do not feel as comfortable in mass transit areas as they do in the aviation domain. To rectify this, OIG recommended that TSA draw up guidance for VIPR teams when encountering suspicious or criminal activity inside the mass transit environment. TSA concurred with the recommendation, although Pistole clarified in his letter that FAMs have the same authority to enforce federal law in the mass transit environment as they do in their special aircraft jurisdiction. Nevertheless, when confronted with criminal activity not within federal jurisdiction, VIPR members should allow their state and local partners to deal with the situation, unless someone is in imminent danger.

"The primary objective of TSA's VIPR Program is to detect, deter, disrupt, and defeat acts of terrorism in all modes of transportation and over all transportation entities," noted Pistole.

♦ Photo from DHS OIG Report: Efficiency and Effectiveness of TSA's Visible Intermodel Prevention and Response Program Within Rail and Mass Transit Systems