Flight Search Laws a Secret

The Secrets of Flight – Why Transportation Security Administration guards don’t have to tell you what they won’t tell you (Slate)

Former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, experienced the existential horror of being governed by secret laws last month while attempting to board a United Airlines flight from Boise to Reno. When pulled aside by security guards from the Transportation Security Administration for additional screening, including a physical pat-down, Chenoweth-Hage requested a copy of the federal regulation authorizing such searches. Her request was denied. “She said she wanted to see the regulation that required the additional procedure for secondary screening and she was told she couldn’t see it,” local TSA Security Director Julian Gonzales told the Idaho Statesman. Chenoweth-Hage said that if she couldn’t see the regulation, she wouldn’t submit to the pat-down. If you don’t allow us to search you, you can’t fly, they responded. And so she didn’t, getting into her car and driving to Reno instead.

A case can be made that airline security would suffer if the criteria used for screening passengers were to be revealed. Such a disclosure would make it easier to circumvent passenger screenings. But Chenoweth-Hage wasn’t asking for such details, only for the legal authorization for pat-downs. Why couldn’t they at least let her see that? asked Statesman correspondent Dan Popkey. “Because we don’t have to,” replied TSA doorkeeper Gonzales. “That is called ‘sensitive security information.’ She’s not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else,” he said.

How did we come to such a pass? Unlike most forms of classified national security information, which are based in executive order, the concept of “sensitive security information” originated in a 1974 statute, the Air Transportation Safety Act. The intent of SSI was to prohibit disclosure of several categories of information, including information “detrimental to the safety of persons traveling in air transportation.” As initially implemented, SSI was applied rather narrowly to the nuts and bolts of airport and airline security programs. Theoretically, an unlimited number of SSIs can be promulgated—as long as they fit the broad definition set down by law. As official secrets go, SSIs are fairly tame. Several government employees have been fired or forced to resign for making unauthorized disclosures of SSIs, but it’s not a crime. But a little-noticed passage in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 expanded the scope of SSIs to prohibit disclosure of information that “would be detrimental to the security of transportation.” This change in wording ushered in an expansive new interpretation of SSI. A May 2004 Federal Register notice spelled out 16 categories of information that may now be designated as SSI. These include not only airport security plans (as before) and threat assessments, but also records of security inspections and investigations, names of security personnel, and training materials. More problematically, “security directives” such as the one that Chenoweth-Hage requested are exempt. And for good measure, the 16th category is a catch-all exemption for “other information” that TSA may at its discretion determine should be withheld. “By removing any reference to persons or passengers, Congress has significantly broadened the scope of the SSI authority,” wrote Congressional Research Service analyst Todd B. Tatelman in a new report. “As a result, it appears that the authority to classify information as SSI now encompasses all transportation-related activities including air and maritime cargo, trucking and freight transport, and pipelines.” This latent authority could be used to expand the current secrecy regime into other areas of transportation and national infrastructure. Already, “the number and scope of [security directives]” designated as SSI “has markedly increased” since Sept. 11, 2001, as noted by an internal TSA memo.

The TSA, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, has deployed its new secrecy authority with gusto. The TSA signed a security agreement with the Des Moines, Iowa, police department last year as a condition for the city receiving federal financial assistance for airport security.
“If I hadn’t seen this contract I wouldn’t have believed it could happen in America,” Police Chief William McCarthy told the Des Moines Register. Its non-disclosure requirements were so stringent that it might have prevented officers from “reporting the arrest of a drunk at the airport” without first consulting TSA, he said. Similar agreements have been signed with police departments in other cities around the country.

Amazing. As one who has long argued that TSA searches are clearly a violation of the 4th Amendment, I find this bizarre secrecy especially frustrating. TSA recently made searches even more onerous. The irony of all this is that we’re increasing the frustration of obviously non-dangerous passengers while continuing to refuse to apply special screening to Middle Eastern males between the ages of 18 and 40. So, we get the appearance of incredibly tight security, with all the inconvenience and dangers to our civil liberties that comes with it, without any actual increase in security.

Perhaps the ACLU would look into it, if only the Boy Scouts, Pledge of Allegiance, and plastic Maji didn’t consume so much of their time.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.