WHTI Does More Harm Than Good

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Canada Institute is having an event May 30th entitled “People, Security and Borders: The Impact of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative on North America.” It looks like a good event exploring an important suite of issues.

I’ve been drawn into WHTI because of the privacy consequences of many border control efforts - RFID-chipped passport cards and such - but the trade issues are just as important. My back-of-the-envelope calculations about the costs of WHTI (exchanged for essentially no increased security) can now be augmented by not one, but two compelling anecdotes! Both have to do with Montreal … .

Anecdote #1 - The Busy, er, Dopey Traveler
A couple of weeks ago, I embarked on a quick round of travel to speaking engagements in Orlando and Montreal. Then, after a day in Chicago, I had planned a weekend in Las Vegas (to properly release a bachelor friend from the bonds of singledom).

As I headed to the Dulles airport bound for Orlando, I realized that I had not brought my passport for the Montreal portion of the journey. After burning a lot of candle-power figuring out what to do, I had a tenant of mine FedEx my passport to Orlando for arrival the next morning. ($24 + gratuity for the little feller going well out of his way = $40)

It arrived well after my scheduled flight for Montreal had departed, so I turned up at the Orlando airport around noon hoping to stand by on later flights. Informed that this was an impossibility on international flights (also, I believe, because of security), I came close to cancelling my attendance at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in Montreal, but I persisted. (Who knows what rules were bent on my behalf, or what the rules actually are.) It took me about 14 hours and a good deal of stress to get to Montreal.

(N.B. This episode was not a stunt done to prove a point - I only do those when reporters agree to come along. It was a simple oversight because I don’t think of Montreal as being in a “foreign country” they way Lisbon or Hong Kong are.)

Long story short (oops, too late), the stresses of comporting myself to the passport requirement and various other security measures caused me to abandon the Vegas portion of my trip and head back to D.C. from Chicago for a quiet weekend. Careless as I am in tinsel-town, that probably kept $1,000 from circulating into the U.S. economy.

Anecdote #2 - The On-the-Ball Travelers
The Cato Institute’s own Michael Cannon was married two years ago. (Yes, there’s somebody out there for everyone.) To celebrate his recently completed graduate schooling and their second anniversary, he and his wife have been planning to go to Montreal this weekend.

The new(ish)ly renamed Mrs. Cannon has her act together - opposites attract, you see - and a few months ago, anticipating this trip, she applied for a passport in her new name. The check was cashed back in March, but the passport has yet to materialize.

At this moment, the two are in logistics hell, trying to navigate the State Department’s bureaucracy (including its downed electronic appointment scheduling system).

What will happen? Nobody knows. Will herculean efforts by Mrs. Cannon and her hubby produce a passport? Will the two cancel their trip? Will Mr. Cannon persist in the face of this heavy, security based regulation and go on his own?

Programs like WHTI are often justified as being part of a layered security system for the United States. “Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things. One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure. However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry. Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified. If checking the passports of Canadian-border crossers doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - that layer does more harm than good.

The United States is not safer because of what the Cannons are experiencing. It’s just smaller and unhappier.