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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *