By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
Government employees and politicians get preferential treatment from the Transportation Security Administration simply for being government employees and politicians.
Meanwhile, everyone else is stuck in an “aviation security caste system” based on dozens of watchlists compiled by the TSA, FBI and other law enforcement agencies, along with a secret formula the TSA believes can sort passengers based on hypothetical analyses and conjecture.
That’s the conclusion drawn by Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney for the ACLU, who reviewed a recent audit of the TSA, every traveler’s favorite government pseudo-police force.
In case you missed it, Watchdog reported last week the GAO says the TSA doesn’t really have a handle on how many people end up boarding airplanes despite being on the so-called “no fly list.” The TSA uses literally dozens of different lists provided by federal law enforcement agencies to determine which travelers should be singled out for extra screening or should not be allowed to fly, no matter how much screening they receive.
But the keen legal minds at the ACLU caught another serious problem.
Handeyside says keeping all those separate lists — and “blacklisting” some people while “whitelisting” others — is probably unconstitutional and is “stretching the concept of watchlisting to the breaking point.”
“Not only has the Transportation Security Administration expanded its use of blacklists for security screening to identify passengers who may be “unknown threats,” but it also has compiled vast whitelists of individuals — including members of Congress, federal judges, and millions of Department of Defense personnel — who are automatically eligible for expedited screening at airports,” Handeyside wrote. “These changes have made a broken watchlisting system even more arbitrary, unfair, and discriminatory.”
According to the GAO audit, the TSA uses these lists — the black one, the white one and lots of others that we can only imagine the colors of — to pre-screen all incoming airline passengers through the Secure Flight program.
Like the famous enchanted hat at Hogwarts, the Secure Flight program sorts all passengers into one of three categories: high risk, low risk and unknown risk. When you step up to the security line at the airport, the TSA scans your boarding pass into the computer and is told which category you belong to.
Though the TSA is keeping secret the formula used to determine the three screening categories, Handeyside said it likely expands on the various watchlists maintained by the FBI and other law enforcement bodies.
Your name can end up on one of those watchlists even if you’ve never committed a crime, much less an act of terrorism.
In addition to the lists provided by the FBI and others, the GAO audit revealed the TSA is developing its own watchlists based on secret criteria that include “risk-based targeting scenarios and assessments” to determine who might be a potential threat.
“In other words, the FBI’s flawed definition of someone who is a suspected threat to aviation security isn’t relaxed enough for the TSA, so the TSA is creating its own blacklists of people who are hypothetical threats,” Handeyside wrote. “Those people are also subjected to additional screening every time they fly.”
If you end up on one of those TSA blacklists, it’s very difficult to appeal because of the top secret process that landed you there in the first place.
On the flip side, that’s a problem our elected officials won’t have to deal with. The special TSA “whitelists” mean members of Congress, judges and more than 3 million Americans who are employed by the military, Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security get to fly right past the screening line while all those regular folks wait.
Because no one employed by the Department of Defense would ever be considered a risk to their country, right? If Ed Snowden showed up to the airport before June 2013 with vital national security secrets in his carry-on luggage, he would likely have been waved through security without a second look.
As Handeyside concludes, one of the major problems with security watchlists — whether they are black or white — is the underlying assumption the government can rely “on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a dangerous act in the future.”
Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org