Jun 25 2009

Courts and Congress finally start to rein in the TSA

Until recently, the TSA has been a domestic legal Guantanamo, and the TSA has treated their domain of “checkpoints” and travel control and surveillance as a law-free zone where their powers of search, seizure, detention, and denial of passage were unconstrained by the Constitution, human rights treaties, judicial review, or stautory or regulatory standards.  As indeed it has been: Congress has enacted no law specifically defining any limits on the authority of TSA agents at checkpoints (or elsewhere), and the TSA itself has never conducted any rulemaking or issued any publicly-disclosed regulations defining its authority, the limits of that authority, what orders travellers do or don’t have to comply with, and which forms of “noncooperation” are considered grounds for which sanctions (more intrusive search, denial of transportation, admninistrative fine, detention, etc.). While the TSA has never been explicitly exempted from the Constitution or treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the DHS has sought to avoid ever allowing judicial review of fly/no-fly decisions, and the courts themselves have gone out of their way to avoid ruling on the legality of TSA actions — such as when the 9th Circuit invented a counter-factual claim (without ever allowing an evidentiary hearing on the facts) that John Gilmore hadn’t actually been required to show ID credentials in order to fly, as a way to avoid ruling on whether an ID-to-fly requirement would be Constitutional. As for the Executive, President Obama has yet to nominate an Administrator of the TSA, leaving this one of the highest-ranking vacancies in the Administration and leaving the TSA operating on autopilot under lame-duck holdovers.

In the absence of any explicit rules or any judicial, legislative, or executive oversight, the TSA has felt no need to seek authority for its ever-expanding assertions of authority through legislation or rulemaking.  Nor has the TSA recognized any duty of self-restraint or self-policing to ensure its actions conform to the law. Instead, the TSA has simply wielded its power to do whatever it wished, on the disgraceful assumption that, “If we’re doing something wrong, the courts will tell us — if and when someone can afford to sue us, and they win a court judgment against us.”  In the meantime, the TSA will do, and claim the right to do, anything that hasn’t already specifically been ruled illegal. Kind of like the thief who assumes that they can steal whatever they want, and that if something turns out not be theirs, they’ll give it back if and when someone sues and wins a court judgment ordering its return.

Time and again we’ve pointed out this failure to subject the TSA to the rule of law. See, for example, our most recent prior post on this topic, our agenda on the right to travel submitted to the Obama Administration and Congress after the 2008 elections, and our comments earlier this month at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference session with Obama Administration representatives and others at 1:45:53 of this video.  Until recently, however, neither the Courts, the Congress, nor the Executive branch have wanted to confront the question of what rules govern the TSA.

We’re please to report that this is finally beginiing to change, in small ways but on numerous fronts:

Read More