(New York - Collin Campbell, Transportation Nation) -- It's a strange sight, the bright blue uniforms of the agents who run the long lines and security machinery at airports, down in the crush of the New York City subway. But here they are, the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration. For now -- there are two teams working with the NYPD to check the bags of transit passengers. This summer, the city and the federal government will discuss adding more.
"We're currently working with Amtrak and freight rail as well," said John P. Sammon, Assistant Administrator with the TSA's office of Transportation Sector Network Management. "So no, there are not limits on which modes of transportation the TSA can work on securing."
Random bag checks by the NYPD started in 2005, following the London subway bombings. Sammon says his TSA agents will team up with NYPD officers and are in subways only "to enhance existing security measures." The NYPD will select which subway riders get screened. The TSA will do the screening, which usually involves swabbing bags and testing for explosive material, and can involve opening and searching bags. If suspicious or dangerous material is found, the NYPD will take over. There are two teams working now, and they've been seen and reported to be working in some of the system's busiest stations.
Why the TSA has expanded is up in the air. Fox 5 News in New York reports that the federal agents are helping the NYPD because of an officer shortage. The department has been hammered in recent years by city budget cuts, and forced to staffing levels well below what it had in the days after 9/11. The White House is also still talking to the City of New York about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Lower Manhattan courthouse, something that would stretch the NYPD further. TSA agents could be a way to backstop that period.
This could also be a moment when the T in "TSA" is expanding, and we come to know these federal agents are more than airport scanners. The TSA's online announcement of the program in New York features a photo of DC's Metro. A mistake? Or a sign of things to come?