Festering TSA: The airport security force expands its reach

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American taxpayers will be less than delighted to learn that the Transportation Security Administration -- the TSA beloved of airport "stop and frisk" -- is expanding its activities.

The TSA was created in response to the 9/11 attacks to prevent more aircraft-based terrorist assaults on the United States. It grew to 56,000 employees, who are outfitted with an array of expensive equipment. This has meant heavy costs to the taxpayer and profit opportunities to friendly suppliers. The TSA's activities also have hurt the U.S. airlines, as some travelers choose to drive to their destinations instead of endure long, slow lines at airport security and the sometimes rage-inspiring attention of inspection agents.

No government officials have yet had the courage to reduce the TSA's role, even as the 2001 attacks have receded into the past.

In the meantime, the TSA has moved to institutionalize itself. Its employees unionized last year, as part of the powerful American Federation of Government Employees Union. That move makes the TSA more difficult not only to eliminate, but even to trim. Its role in maintaining "national security" also gives it strength to elude cuts in its $8 billion budget.

Another move by the TSA to dig in deeper is the establishment of its Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads. The New York Times reported last week that the armed, uniformed and armor-wearing VIPR teams comb high-traffic places like Union Station in Washington, D.C., and the Metro rail line in Minneapolis, Minn. VIPR squads can also be found at music festivals, sporting events, road weighing stations, shopping malls and rodeos. The TSA's annual budget for VIPR alone is $100 million.

Some members of Congress are not convinced that the VIPR teams are effective. Federal auditors question whether they've been properly trained and deployed.

Just how much of this does the taxpayer have to tolerate?

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