We’ve been reading the Jetsetting Terrorist blog (highlighted last week by Boing Boing) to see what we can learn from the anonymous author’s chronicles of his experiences traveling on commercial airlines, within the U.S. and internationally, after being convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor criminal offense the U.S. has since defined as “terrorism”:
Since 2009, I’ve been on the TSA’s “terrorist watch list” [because] years ago I was convicted of an activist-related property crime. The government deemed it “terrorism.” My “weapon of mass destruction” was a small tool purchased at a hardware store for under $30. My crime resulted in a loss of profits to several businesses. No one was injured. And it wasn’t even a felony.
Some of what the Jetsetting Terrorist describes is unsurprising, such as the inconsistency and unpredictable of the TSA’s “There are no rules” operational practices (a/k/a, “We make up the rules as we go along”, or “The rules are whatever we say they are today”). Or the confusion of TSA and airport checkpoint contractor staff, accustomed to carrying out crude profiling on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, when they receive instructions to treat a white-skinned hipster techie U.S. native like the Jetsetting Terrorist as a second-class citizen. We’ve heard many accounts like these from other travelers about the TSA’s real-world Standard Operating Procedures, as distinct from those contained in the secret written manuals for TSA staff and contractors.
Beyond that, several things stand out from our reading of the Jetsetting Terrorist blog:
- Anyone could be subjected to the same treatment as the “Jetsetting Terrorist”. Millions of people in the U.S. have been convicted, at some point in their lives, of some nonviolent property crime or other nonviolent misdemeanor. There are no limits to what crimes the government can retroactively define as “terrorism”, and courts have enforced few constraints on what additional burdens, restrictions, and prohibitions can retroactively be imposed — by law or by extrajudicial administrative fiat — on anyone who has ever in their life been convicted of any crime. Once someone has a criminal record, they are considered to “deserve” whatever they later get when additional administrative infirmities are later piled on to their long-ago-completed judicially-imposed sentence. And it’s not just people convicted of crimes later defined as “terrorism”. Where will it end? “First they came for the terrorists. Then they came for the drug dealers…. Then they came for you and me.”
- So-called “watchlists” are really blacklists. The word “watchlist” is an Orwellian euphemism which the government uses to minimize its infringement of the rights of people on these lists. Properly speaking, a “watchlist” implies a list used to target surveillance, and the consequences of being on a “watchlist” are limited to being watched, i.e. surveilled. A bad thing, but very difference from the consequences of being on a blacklist, on the basis of which the government actively interferes with one’s movements, lays hands on one’s body (calling genital groping by another minimizing euphemism, “patdown”), and rips open one’s luggage to paw through one’s possessions.
- DHS pre-crime profiling is not binary, and can lead to many levels of consequences. Most travelers naively assume that unless you are “on the no-fly list”, there are only three levels of pre-crime “risk scores” and consequent levels of intrusiveness of DHS action against you at airports: the TSA Pre-Check line, the “normal” (in the post-9/11 sense of “normal”) screening line, and the “secondary screening” line for those “selectees” who get “SSSS” printed on their boarding passes. But as the experiences reported by the Jetsetting Terrorist remind us, not all “selecteees” are selected for like treatment. As was made public in a government filing in the first no-fly trial last year, each entry on the “selectee” list is assigned a numeric “handling code”. The range of handling codes and their meanings remains secret, but while some “selectees” merely get the full monty (“enhanced patdown”), others like the Jetsetting Terrorist are prevented from proceeding through TSA checkpoints until the checkpoint staff phone the FBI to report their itinerary and get permission for them to travel. In the case of the Jetsetting Terrorist, everyone on the same plane is subjected to an additional guilt-by-proximity ID document check and luggage inspection at the gate, at the entrance to the jetway.
- DHS components are among the “customers” for NSA electronic surveillance. On a recent international trip, the Jetsetting Terrorist spent time, while he was abroad, with a friend from the US: “My friend went back one day before me. We didn’t arrive together. We didn’t leave together. We don’t live anywhere near each other. Separate itineraries, everything. But a few hours before I was to leave for the airport, I get an email. Customs got her. Details were sparse, but she said they’d detained her for over an hour, asked her a thousand questions, took her computer in the back room, and asked her about me. A lot about me. What’s most interesting: Somehow, they knew we were traveling together. This could not be gleaned from airline records. In fact, it could only have been learned of from electronic surveillance.” Assuming these facts are accurately reported, we agree. (The Jetsetting Terrorist blog is anonymous and unverifiable. But we have no reason to doubt its legitimacy.) This isn’t the first report of DHS employees questioning a US citizen about information that could only have been obtained from surveillance of electronic communications: that’s part of the basis for an ongoing lawsuit in federal court in Indiana. We continue to believe, as we said when we reported on that case earlier this year, that it’s more likely that the DHS is one of, and possibly the most frequent, “customer” and user of information obtained from the illegal NSA electronic communications dragnet than that the DHS is running its own parallel illegal surveillance scheme on the same scale.
The Jetsetting Terrorist is looking for help finding a way to film and/or record his interactions with the TSA, in spite of being separate from his belongings while he is being searched and interrogated. Since he plans to distribute these recordings publicly, they would be protected from search (as would his other work product documents and data) by the federal Privacy Protection Act, 42 USC 2000aa. Most journalists aren’t aware of this law. But it has important implications at airports, and protects anyone with an intent to distribute information publicly — not just full-time professional journalists.