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How is the TSA (and Amtrak) responding to the Al Qaeda threat? It's called VIPR

Amtrak's Mobile Command Center

Amtrak and the TSA have ramped up security on Amtrak. Seriously ramped-up security procedures.

Monday morning, at the Wilmington, Delaware station, I noticed this massive vehicle.

Amtrak has a bus Amtrak's Mobile Command Center

I'm a commuter. Like VP Joe Biden (when he was Senator Biden), I often travel between NYC and Washington DC using Amtrak.  Over the past three years, I have averaged almost three trips on the Northeast Corridor line every month. My frequency of travel on Amtrak has given me a unique perspective on the regular procedures of the government-run rail system.

On Monday, coinciding with the reported threats from Al Qaeda to to do something "strategically significant," there was an obvious response from Amtrak. Never before had I seen a visible police presence - beyond the occasional Amtrak police office walking through the train.

TSA k9 Inspector Shawn Hurley works with Lewie to screen passengers Credit: Getty Images

During a typical ride to NYC, I would see one officer as well as an officer with a dog (assumed to be sniffing for explosives) walking up and down the aisles. This past Monday, there were bullet-proof-vest-wearing armed officers stationed in every car and multiple officer/dog teams walking through the train. (I believe that I saw three cop/dog teams on my morning train.)

And now the TSA has gotten involved with something they call their Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams (VIPR). Ron Nixon of the New York Times reported on the increased TSA presence, not to just train stations, but also in places where transportation is not an issue.

With little fanfare, the agency best known for airport screenings has vastly expanded its reach to sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train terminals. Not everyone is happy.

Could it be that people are not happy with being randomly pulled from a train platform for a search? And the TSA claims its agents can do this without a warrant because the searches are considered to be “special needs” or “administrative searches” and therefore don't require a warrant or probable cause.

The TSA's VIPR teams reportedly have an annual budget of $100 million to staff up and perform random passenger searches. The Times story says that the program has been around for years and is not without controversy. In 2011, agents were cited for searching passengers AFTER they got off trains.

Follow Mike Opelka on Twitter - @stuntbrain 

Read the full New York Times story on the TSA security ramp up here.

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