November 21, 2004

At least it's not just me.

After my previous entry, finding a reference to this incident in The Agonist just make me reach for the keyboard.

One 'good' thing about the current 'travel security' idiocy, I must say, is that it affects and angers a broad, broad spectrum of people. Take, for example, former Republican Congresswoman Chenoweth-Hage (R-ID). Described as 'ultraconservative,' this is someone I doubt I would share many positions with. Here, however, is something in which I can find instant identification with her. She was recently taken aside for an 'extra pat-down' at an airport security search under new TSA regulations. When she asked to see a copy of the regulation giving the TSA the authority to do this, that's when the fun started. The following is quoted from Secrecy News, the Federation of American Scientists project on Government secrecy. The content is, in fact, taken from The Idaho Statesman:

"She said she wanted to see the regulation that required the additional procedure for secondary screening and she was told that she couldn't see it," local TSA security director Julian Gonzales told the Idaho Statesman (10/10/04).

"She refused to go through additional screening without seeing the regulation, and she was not allowed to fly," he said. "It's pretty simple."

Chenoweth-Hage wasn't seeking disclosure of the internal criteria used for screening passengers, only the legal authorization for passenger pat-downs. Why couldn't they at least let her see that? asked Statesman commentator Dan Popkey.

"Because we don't have to," Mr. Gonzales replied crisply.

"That is called 'sensitive security information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he said.

Now, I don't know Ms. Chenoweth-Hage, nor much about her. I don't know anything about Mr. Gonzales other than his quote above. However, I will say this: based simply on that quote, Mr. Gonzales is an indicator of a trend which is, to me, extremely disturbing. While I have no problem at all with the notion of my government having information which the general public should be unable to access for reasons of security, there is no defensible reason to this citizen that the content of a law or regulation used to restrict our behavior, most especially those used to limit our freedoms - of speech, of action, of travel, of association - should ever be hidden from the view of the public. The transparency and public accountability of our legal system is what holds our nation and our system apart from the very things we purport to fight and oppose in this world.

"Sensitive security information?" What the hell is 'sensitive security information?" The fact that they can do it? Well, no longer. The names and identity of those responsible for giving them that power? That would be exactly the reason these things cannot be hidden from the public eye. The 'criteria' for which people can be pulled aside for searches? Note carefully that the Statesman said that that wasn't what the Congresswoman asked for. And their excuse as to why? "Because we don't have to."

"Because we don't have to" is the excuse of thugs, dictators, and sociopaths. "Because we don't have to" is the excuse of people hiding behind rules they have gamed to allow them bad behavior. It is the whining cry of someone who knows they have done wrong but has found a way to avoid making it right. It is the puling of someone who cannot be allowed to exercise power over the average American citizen in the conduct of his or her daily life.

Please don't stand for this. There are ways to express your disapproval. Number one: don't fly if you can avoid it. Number two: write your congressional representative and express your strong disapproval. Number three: learn everything you can about the legal limits of TSA searches, and be sure not to let them trespass over the line. If a TSA employee transgresses the limits of legal or acceptable behavior, do what Penn Jillette did - call a cop, and make a report. Use the bureaucracy against itself. Jam the system. Don't be a sheep.

Back to the original point. There is hope, here. Things like this tend to create coalitions. Congresswoman Chenoweth-Hage may not (I say, again, may not, because I know nothing really about her) understand what it is to be pulled aside for 'random' extra security searches - not once for a humiliating pat-down, but twelve times out of the twelve times you have flown since 9/11, as I have. Why? Well, they won't tell me, because of course the criteria are 'sensitive security information.' Note that I have less of a problem with that than with her case, as I mentioned above! However, if the Congresswoman and I were ever to meet, and if she and I had in the past not had much of anything to agree on politically (this is pure supposition) well, then - the TSA has just given us something. They have given us something on which to build an alliance, and whether it is one of convenience or not is irrelevant - in politics, all alliances are of convenience to some degree. The point is, when people like Congresswoman Chenoweth-Hage, and Senator Kennedy, and Mr. Jon Gilmore, much more than people like myself, all start getting stopped at airports and pulled aside - well, then, we can hope that this small piece of common anger may contribute to bipartisan solutions.

Here's hoping.

Posted by jbz at November 21, 2004 9:52 PM | TrackBack


Related story in today's NYT:
"Many Women Say Airport Pat-Downs Are a Humiliation"

*Love* the filename. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Gordon at November 23, 2004 9:26 AM

Sonia keeps getting pulled in for extra screening. I suspect it's because she travels with a passport from a country in the Middle East.

Perhaps someday enough congresscritters (almost all of whom travel a great deal) will get annoyed by the TSA and take action out of self-interest, if nothing else, and they'll do it very, very quietly: some amendment slipped into some piece of unrelated legislation in the wee hours of the morning and passed on a voice vote. I don't expect anyone to be an open advocate anything that a political opponent would describe as "relaxing airport security", since that still wouldn't go over with the electorate, most of which doesn't actually travel all that often.

It would be interesting to hear what the airlines have to say on the subject. Though security screening has been taken over by the TSA, airline feedback might be insightful. The airlines need balance in airport security: too loose, and the public will avoid flying due to fears for their safety; too tight, and the public will avoid flying due to the inconvenience.

TSA screening policy is sorta like a certain Linux distribution. It started off completely crack-addled, and as time passes, it slowly approaches sanity. Once again, people can fly with tweezers in their carry-on bags. One can hope that it will continue to improve over time.

I half expect, as long as there are secret protocols, that members of Congress will eventually be put on a secret whitelist and be spared any secondary searches, so as to reduce their incentive to increase oversight over TSA.

It's not in the interest of the TSA to piss off Congress. For that reason, I suspect Julian Gonzales is going to be working in the private sector soon. His superiors are probably going to want to let him take the fall for this and claim that the problem with the TSA is limited to a handful of malcontents who can easily be fired once identified.

Posted by: Mark Gordon at November 22, 2004 2:47 PM
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