Boxcutting Basics
By A.D. Freudenheim  

19 October 2003

I do not know how you feel, dear reader, but for me the political divisions between left and right get as thin as the air when I’m cruising at 35,000 feet. The revelations this week that some college student is alleged to have been the mastermind behind a breach in US airline security – stashing box cutters on several aircraft, along with other items that weren’t weapons but were designed to look like them – is stunning in positive and negative ways.[1]

On the positive side, anyone who travels by plane owes young Nathaniel T. Heatwole a thanks, assuming that it was he who breached the Transportation Safety Administration’s (TSA) security net and perpetrated the act of which he now stands accused. Heatwole’s actions will bring another, better level of scrutiny to airline security and hopefully help focus the TSA’s efforts; moreover, this will have been accomplished without anyone actually being hurt or killed, which is a significant improvement in and of itself. I do not know whether Heatwole would have been picked up as a suspect by the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS) system that the TSA uses to screen passengers, or whether he also read the Reason magazine item about how it would be possible to confound the system,[2] but either way, let’s hope that the TSA can and will learn from the experience. Congress should assist by holding hearings on the current state of the TSA’s security measures and goosing the process, while providing public hearings and, thus, more public awareness.

The list of negatives is longer. The most obvious problem is that the TSA apparently still suffers from deep imprecision in its efforts. What is it, exactly, that the TSA and the Bush administration cannot get right here? Nation-wide security for commercial aviation should be the government’s responsibility – I would not want to rely on the airlines to manage this themselves – and it should be easy to accomplish, given the importance of air travel to American business interests if nothing else. All bags should be screened and all passengers too, and if the cost of this basic safety is exorbitant, then the government should either raise taxes to pay for it, or add an additional tax to airline tickets to cover the cost directly from the people who fly. It seems evident that the long-term cost to taxpayers of suffering another attack like the one on 11 September 2001 is significantly higher than any of the more immediate costs of improving airline security.

There are also problems of a political nature in advancing the cause of better security – even though political divisions should be extremely irrelevant when it comes to these matters. For example, the Bush administration continues to pursue elusive threat ghosts with ever more expansive (and expensive) privacy-infringing mechanisms. One good example is the “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) program launched by the Pentagon to design new computer systems and capture massive amounts of data about even the most unthreatening of American citizens. Fortunately, this program was de-funded by Congress – with bi-partisan agreement – but only after several public relations fiascos showed how deeply screwed up was this plan in the first place. Alas, the disappearance of TIA does not mean that the ideas themselves are dead.

Similarly, the Justice Department and Attorney General John Ashcroft currently oppose a measure recently introduced in Congress by a bipartisan coalition: the SAFE Act would modify the USA Patriot Act, specifically changing the broad authority the Patriot Act gives the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies to search and tap people’s homes, offices, files, phones, and computers without showing significant just cause – and without informing the suspect that they are being watched. Even under the SAFE Act, law enforcement would still be permitted much greater flexibility in tracking unsuspicious people and activities than should ever have been permitted under the Patriot Act.[3] But the Bushies do not seem to care – it looks like all or nothing to them; their attitude about the need to spy on the citizenry takes us one step closer towards reversing the fundamental American concept that people are innocent until proven guilty. While this happens, many of the Democrats who meekly went along with the Patriot Act legislation initially are now trying to use the cover offered by true civil libertarians to reel the administration back in. Pathetic.

Protecting airline passengers (and the people on the ground beneath them) is not a left-right issue, it is plain common sense. It is also largely black-and-white, with clear results: either people are carrying dangerous items or they are not. Tracking the suspicious activities of dangerous persons is a legitimate government activity, too, but unlike the clear threat posed by someone walking onto an airplane armed with a weapon, the government itself needs to be carefully monitored in how and why it chooses to watch the citizenry. The Bush administration, and Mr. Ashcroft, should hold off on pushing their “lofty” ideas for how to catch terrorists while infringing on our civil liberties – and focus instead on keeping the box cutters and bombs off our airlines.

[1] See “Legal Action Expected in Box Cutter Case,” by Curt Anderson, Associated Press, 10 October 2003
[2] See “Busting CAPPS,” from the “Balance Sheet” section of the October issue of Reason, edited by Jeff Taylor
[3] See “Patriot Act Amendments Offered,” by Rita Chang, Medill News Service/PC, 17 October 2003
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