Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Operation Continues

For the second time in three days, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have conducted a major counter-terrorism operation along I-20 in Atlanta. For several hours, beginning this morning and continuing into the afternoon, officials searched scores of tractor-trailer rigs traveling along the highway.

A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, Jon Allen, told WSB-TV that the operation was aimed at prevent any type of activity that anybody may have to disrupt transportation systems.”

Mr. Allen described the search effort as a form of "highway homeland security." But at that point, his comments took a turn for the odd. Interviewed by WSB's Mark Winne--one of the first journalists to learn that Tuesday's search was an operation and not an exercise--Mr. Allen said the federal air marshal service was the lead agency for the roadway inspections in Atlanta.

That may strike you as a bit unusual, but it is not without precedent. Since their integration into TSA, air marshals have deployed as part of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which provide a random, highly visible security presence, typically in a mass transit or passenger rail system. In recent years, TSA has averaged at least one VIPR deployment a month, with as many as 1-2 per week during some periods.

Still, it's worth noting that air marshals typically deploy to augment the VIPR teams, rather than taking the lead. Their role in running today's operation suggests potential targets are aviation-related, or TSA is simply trying to expand the operational portfolio of the air marshal's service.

We've also been told that the air marshals have been reluctant participants in these operations, believing it takes them away from their primary mission, and jeopardizes their undercover status. Indeed, TSA administrators originally required participating marshals to wear shirts or raid jackets identifying them as federal air marshals. That requirement was eventually rescinded. More recently, air marshals serving with VIPR teams have performed their duties in civilian attire, and were simply identified as DHS officials.

Which brings us back to Mr. Allen's comments. If TSA is trying to preserve the anonymity of its air marshals, why did their media spokesmen identify the service as the lead agency in today's operation? And, we can only wonder how many marshals were captured on tape by WSB and other local TV stations covering the search operation.

Admittedly, this has not been a very good week for TSA's regional public affairs department. As Tuesday's search got underway west of Atlanta (and traffic slowed to a crawl on I-20), a TSA spokesman insisted the activity was a training exercise. That explanation lasted until Mr. Winne contacted other law enforcement officials, who revealed it was a counter-terrorism operation.

A retired military security official tells In From the Cold the Atlanta operation isn't entirely consistent with a major counter-terrorism effort or deterrent activity. The official says that type of operation would also include extensive aerial surveillance; an increased police presence at other places where tractor-trailers congregate (including truck stops), and the establishment of additional check-points in the Atlanta area.

So far, there's no evidence those other measures were implemented, although officials aren't discussing what they found during two days of searching, or if the operation will continue.

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