Chertoff speaks on TSA, Customs and other fun stuff


I like to pick on the TSA a fair amount – I think that they deserve it for most of their policies.  So when the Director of the Department of Homeland Security got himself an interview in Wired I was certainly interested to see what he would have to say about the TSA and some of the other programs that they are running these days.  Since the article was in Wired the focus was on technology programs, though there are plenty of travel-related bits in the interview.

One of the main points of discussion was the ability of Customs agents to seize a laptop or other electronic device, as the contents of such are just considered part of a passenger’s luggage.  This policy has been upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and I can’t imagine that the SCOTUS is going to overturn it, so this is pretty much the way it is.  Here’s part of what Chertoff has to say on the topic:

You are looking for material that is contraband itself, such as child pornography or information about how to set up remote control IEDs. Or if they are non-Americans, you are looking for information on the laptop about why they should not be admitted.

So they’re looking for things that are illegal, as well as things that aren’t actually illegal.  It turns out that information on how to set up remote control IEDs isn’t actually illegal by virtue of existing.   But Chertoff seems to think that possession of written material is actually illegal, just because he doesn’t want folks having documentation on IEDs. 

In the posted details on the DHS website they state that:

…[T]here are numerous laws that apply to such material at the border including laws regarding intellectual property rights, technical data that can be imported or exported only under state department license and child pornography.

Yet somehow they’ve also decided to extend these laws to cover things that don’t fall in any of those categories.  Go figure.

Chertoff also comments on the watch lists.  His claim is that the airlines are at fault for not gathering an additional data point (usually date of birth) to verify the identity of passengers.  That program only came in to existence a couple months ago, and yet Chertoff is already blaming the airlines for not implementing the system quickly enough.  Never mind that the lists don’t actually have the names of the riskiest people on them, because then those people would know that they were considered terrorists.  And there is no accountability for how names are added to the list or really any easy way to get off the list, despite the TSA’s claim that the redress program is in effect. 

There may be people for whom it is inconvenient to be patted down or asked a few questions. The downside is that if we don’t do that except if we have proof someone is an actual terrorist, you are going to have a Mohammed Atta getting on an airplane or crossing the border and that’s going to raise the risk.

And he also puts aside the fact that it isn’t just a pat down or some questions.  The need to interact with a check-in agent and go through the secondary screening wastes hours of peoples’ time, every day.

The most interesting bit of the whole thing, however, is the final comment he makes about the watch list program:

But if you are asking if we would do a court process where we litigate it, I mean, that effectively would shut it down.

In other words, there is something inherently wrong with the program that Chertoff feels wouldn’t actually stand up to a court process.  So why are we still operating such a program??

He also makes sure to raise the “think of the children” argument true to form:

And then I guarantee what would happen is this: If you stopped using the watch list and basically anybody could get on a plane without knowing their identity, sooner or later something would happen — and people would lose their lives, and then there would be another 9/11 Commission and we’d hear about how you had this system and you would have kept them off and these people lost their loved ones on a plane.

I agree that terrorists should be kept off of planes.  I don’t think that anyone would argue that.  But the current system has very little relationship with actually identifying passengers or terrorists, and the the TSA doesn’t seem willing to admit that.  Moreover, identifying a person should be way less of a goal than actually stopping weapons from getting on the plane, stopping bombs from getting on to planes through cargo, which remains wholly unscreened or stopping water bottles from getting on the plane that cannot be used to launch a reasonable attack. 

But that would involve the TSA and DHS reversing a policy decision and admitting that the risks aren’t really there.  And that would diminish the cycle of fear that the TSA and DHS are so keen on promoting.  And we can’t have that, can we?

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

One Comment

  1. people outside the US are already taking note about this, anyone paying attention knew they were up to seizing laptops before, now they simply added it to their ‘procedures manual’

    in an article of the Costa Rica equivalent of the Wall Street Journal there is a full page article warning business travellers about what can happen to their laptops when they visit the US

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