When US citizen Jonathan Corbett checked in at Heathrow Airport in London for an American Airlines flight to New York last December, he was questioned by an airline employee or contractor (it’s often impossible to tell which are which) about his travel outside the US:
When questions changed from, “Where are you flying?” to “Was your trip for personal or business purposes,” and “Where were you since you left America,” I asked if the questions were necessary, and was told yes.
Mr. Corbett was eventually allowed to board his flight without answering these questions. But he followed up first with the airline, which referred him to the TSA, and then with the TSA itself.
Both AA and the TSA said that the questioning is part of a TSA-mandated “security program”. While AA and the TSA both claimed that most details of this program are secret, the TSA “Office of Global Strategies Communications Desk” (OGSCommunications@tsa.dhs.gov) told Mr. Corbett that answering the questions is a condition of boarding a flight to the US:
As part of its Transportation Security Administration (TSA)-approved security program, American Airlines is required to conduct a security interview of passengers prior to departure to the United States… If a passenger declines the security inteview, American Airlines will deny the passenger boarding. The contents of the security program and the security interview are considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI) … and its contents are not for public disclosure. Any security procedure performed by the airline would be because of a requirement in their program.
Yesterday, Mr. Corbett filed suit against the TSA in both the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (which has jurisdiction over Kennedy Airport in Queens, where his flight arrived in the US) and in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Florida, where Mr. Corbett resides). Perverse judicial precedents including those in Mr. Corbett’s own previous lawsuits require most lawsuits against TSA practices to be filed simultaneously in both District and Circuit Courts, to avoid a risk of being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Mr. Corbett’s lawsuit directly challenges the requirement for a traveler to answer questions (i.e. to waive his or her Firth Amendment right to remain silent) as a condition of the exercise of the rifght to travel, specifically the right of a US citizen to return to the US.