Slow and Steady Progress on TSA Strip-Search Policy

Having pled before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that doing a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its strip-search machine policy is difficult and expensive, the Transportation Security Administration is dropping a cool quarter-billion dollars on new strip-search machines. That’s quite a fixation the TSA has, putting spending on new gadgets ahead of following the law.

But the writing is on the wall for the practice of putting travelers through strip-search machines and prison-style pat-downs at the government checkpoints in American airports.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit ruled against a petition to have the court force TSA to move forward with taking public comments as required by law. The language of the order signals the court’s expectation, though, that the TSA will get this done, quoting the TSA’s language and, well, saying as much.

ORDERED that the petition for writ of mandamus be denied in light of the Government’s representation that “the process of finalizing the AIT Rulemaking documents so that the NPRM may be published is expected to be complete by or before the end of February 2013.” Accordingly, we expect that the NPRM will be published before the end of March 2013.

Generous court — it gave the TSA an extra month.

I imagine the folks at EPIC are preparing a filing for April 1st. No foolin’, there will be a public push to go along with it, as large or larger than the most recent.

The TSA knows it can only carry on so long in contempt of the law and the court. I expect the rulemaking documents will issue by midnight on March 31st, even if a special Sunday edition of the Federal Register has to be published to do it.

The court’s ruling is technically adverse to the petitioners, but it is better than a flat denial. The court was not going to cancel a policy that is arguably an important security measure. The best outcome was some kind of date certain with consequences for failure to act. The TSA delivered a date certain, which the court has adopted. Leaving the consequences unstated could embolden TSA to more contumacy, but I doubt it.

Once the rulemaking is in place, the strategy I laid out a year ago kicks in.

The TSA will have to exhibit how its risk management supports the installation and use of strip-search machines. How did the TSA do its asset characterization (summarizing the things it is protecting)? What are the vulnerabilities it assessed? How did it model threats and hazards (actors or things animated to do harm)? What are the likelihoods and consequences of various attacks? Risk assessment questions like these are all essential inputs into decisions about what to prioritize and how to respond.

When the insufficiency of its policymaking is shown, the policy will be ripe for review under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard and there will be a record sufficient to justify a Fourth Amendment challenge to the policy of prison-style searches of all American travelers.

Yes, the challenge to this policy is taking a long time, but pressing back on all fronts against the invasive, unneeded security state is a joy even when it requires patience.