Mar 23 2010

Rules of engagement for the TSA

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a desultory hearing this morning on the nomination of retired U.S. Army Major General Robert A. Harding to be Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and an Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Despite the nominee’s exclusively military background and total lack of experience with the rights of civilian U.S. citizens, domestic civil liberties, or law enforcement, neither any of our questions nor any others about the limits of TSA authority were asked.  Despite some questions about how quickly General Harding has gone back and forth through the military-industrial-government revolving door since his retirement, founding and selling a military “intelligence” consulting contractor and then serving as advisor to a venture capital firm investing in similar companies, Committee members from both sides of the aisle generally praised the nominee’s background.

General Harding, in turn, praised Secure Flight and Israeli-style vetting of would-be travelers, which typically involves both intrusive searches and compulsory responses to open-ended questioning:

We should move even more to an Israeli model where there’s more engagement with passengers.

Harding didn’t define ‘engagement’, although he used the term repeatedly.  In context, though, it was clear that it would include approaching and questioning travelers.

The problem with that, of course, is that that there are no rules of engagement for TSA agents at checkpoints.  No statute or regulation spells out what the TSA is allowed to demand, or what questions a would-be traveler can be required to answer as a condition of the exercise of their right to travel.  Without that, the greater “engagement” that Harding wants is an unconstitutionally open-ended all-purpose general administrative warrant for search and interrogation of people who are neither suspected nor accused of any crime, have received no Miranda warnings, and are not free to leave once they enter the TSA checkpoint.  Once can see why a soldier might like that, but that’s not the way civilians are supposed to be dealt with by civilian law enforcement agencies in the USA.

And near the end of his testimony, Harding gave a clue as to the importance being placed by the DHS on international lobbying:

International [air] carriers will meet in Canada in September.  If I’m confirmed, the Secretary [of Homeland secuirty] would send me to that.

It’s not clear whether he was referring to IATA or ICAO — both have their secretariats in Montreal and Geneva — but the rest of the world shouldn’t be talked into imposing a US-style permission-based travel control regime just because some old soldiers from the U.S. Army like Harding think that’s the way to run the civilian travel world.

Mar 23 2010

State Dept. backs away from public hearing on passport fees

As we noted earlier this month, the State Department told United Airlines that they planned to hold “a public meeting sometime in April or May of 2010” to explain the cost basis of their proposal to increase fees for passports, visas, and other international travel permissions and credentials.

We contacted the State Department as soon as we read this in United’s comments, to try to find out when and where the meeting would be.  At first, a State Department spokesperson said they had “no knowledge of any meeting being organized”.  After we pointed out the statement in United’s comments, they backpedaled, and told us they were “working out the details on whether there will be a public meeting”.  Then this week they  admitted that there had been a plan for a public meeting, but there no longer is. Instead, they now say the State Deaprtment will publish a new notice in the Federal Register next week (probably in this docket folder), with more background on the  “Cost of Service Study”, and re-open public comments for an additional 15 days.

We take it as a sign that the State Department has gotten the message:  So many people oppose this scheme to charge us more for an improper prerequisite to the exercise of our right to travel that the agency responsible for the proposal realizes that any public hearing would provide a forum for the opposition.

The good news is that if you missed the original comment period, you’ll get a second chance.   Comments are currently closed, but get them ready to send as soon as the window re-opens next week.  You can use our comments (also available in OpenOffice .odt and MS-Office .doc formats) as a model if you need ideas for what to say.

[Update: An uninformative supplemental notice (PDF) was published in the Federal Register on  March 24, 2010, with a new docket number (DOS-2010-0037) so that people searching the original docket wouldn’t know that comments have been re-opened.  You can submit comments by e-mail to with “RIN 1400-AC57 and 1400-AC58” in the subject line until 5 p.m. Washington time on Thursday, April 8, 2010.  The supplemental notice claims that comments can be submitted through the Web site, but because the notice wasn’t linked to the original docket and was mis-categorized as “non-rulemaking”, that isn’t currently possible.  In the most important of the follow-up comments, which wasn’t posted to the online docket until a month after it was filed, United Airlines and the U.S. Travel Association jointly argue that the State Department still hasn’t provided sufficient information to allow the public to judge whether the fee increases are justified.]