It took the Transportation Security Administration 20 months to comply with a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals order requiring it to issue a justification for its policy of using strip-search machines for primary screening at airports and to begin taking comments from the public.
In that time, it came up with a 53-page (double-spaced) notice of proposed rulemaking. That's 2.65 double-spaced pages per month.
The TSA's strip-search machine notice will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, and the public will have 90 days to comment. The law requires the agency to consider those public comments before it finalizes its policies. If the comments reveal the TSA's policies to be arbitrary or capricious, the policies can be struck down.
But what is there to comment on? The TSA's brief document defends a hopelessly vague policy statement instead of the articulation that the court asked for. And as to the policy we all know it's implementing, TSA hides behind the skirts of government secrecy.
When the court found that the TSA was supposed to take comment from the public, it wanted a clearer articulation of what rules apply at the airport. The court's ruling itself devoted several paragraphs to the policy and how it affects American travelers.
[T]he TSA decided early in 2010 to use the scanners everywhere for primary screening. By the end of that year the TSA was operating 486 scanners at 78 airports; it plans to add 500 more scanners before the end of this year.
No passenger is ever required to submit to an AIT scan. Signs at the security checkpoint notify passengers they may opt instead for a patdown, which the TSA claims is the only effective alternative method of screening passengers. A passenger who does not want to pass through an AIT scanner may ask that the patdown be performed by an officer of the same sex and in private. Many passengers nonetheless remain unaware of this right, and some who have exercised the right have complained that the resulting patdown was unnecessarily aggressive.
The court wanted a rulemaking on this policy. In the jargon of administrative procedure, the court demanded a "legislative rule," something that reasonably details the rights of the public and what travelers can expect when they go to the airport.
Instead, the TSA has produced a perfectly vague policy statement that conveys nothing about what law applies at the airport. In the regulations that cover screening and inspection, the TSA simply wants to add:
(d) The screening and inspection described in (a) may include the use of advanced imaging technology. For purposes of this section, advanced imaging technology is defined as screening technology used to detect concealed anomalies without requiring physical contact with the individual being screened.
Not a word about the use of strip-search machines as primary screening. Nothing about travelers' options. Nothing about signage. Nothing about the procedures for opt-outs. Nothing about what a person can do if they have a complaint. It's not a regulation. It's a restatement of "we do what we want."
That's contemptuous of the court's order requiring TSA to inform the public, take comments, and consider those comments in formulating a final rule. TSA is doing everything it can to make sure that the airport is a constitution-free zone, and this time it's lifting a middle finger to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It is possible, even in a relatively short document, to articulate how billions of dollars spent on exposing the bodies of millions of law-abiding Americans makes the country better off. What's amazing about the document is how little it says. TSA doesn't even try to justify its strip-search machine policy. Instead, it plays the govenment secrecy trump card.
Here is everything TSA says about how strip-search machines (or "AIT" for "advanced imaging technology") make air travel safer:
[R]isk reduction analysis shows that the chance of a successful terrorist attack on aviation targets generally decreases as TSA deploys AIT. However, the results of TSA's risk-reduction analysis are classified.
Under Executive Order 135256, classification is permitted if "disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism."
"If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information," the order continues, "it shall not be classified."
Assessing the costs and benefits of TSA's policies cannot possibly result in damage to national security. The reason I know this? It's already been done, publicly, by Mark G. Stewart of the University of Newcastle, Australia, and John Mueller of the Ohio State University. They published their findings in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in 2011, and national security is none the worse.
Walking through how well policies and technologies produce security can be done without revealing any intelligence about threats, and it can be done without revealing vulnerabilities in the policy and technology. But the TSA is playing the secrecy trump card, hoping that a gullible and fearful public will simply accept their authority.
I anticipated that the agency might try this tactic when the original order to engage in a public rulemaking came down in mid-2011. In a Cato blog post, I wrote:
Watch in the rulemaking for the TSA to obfuscate, particularly in the area of threat, using claims to secrecy. “We can’t reveal what we know,” goes the argument. “You’ll have to accept our generalizations about the threat being ‘substantial,’ ‘ever-changing,’ and ‘growing.’” It’s an appeal to authority that works with much of the American public, but it is not one to which courts—a co-equal branch of the government—should so easily succumb.
If it sees it as necessary, the TSA should publish its methodology for assessing threats, then create a secret annex to the rulemaking record for court review containing the current state of threat under that methodology, and how the threat environment at the present time compares to threat over a relevant part of the recent past. A document that contains anecdotal evidence of threat is not a threat methodology. Only a way of thinking about threat that can be (and is) methodically applied over time is a methodology.
The TSA published nothing, and it hopes to get past the public and the courts with that.
Its inappropriate and undeniably overbroad use of secrecy will be in our comments to the agency and the legal appeal that will almost certainly follow.
Crucially, agency actions like this are subject to court review. When the TSA finalizes its rules, a court will "decide all relevant questions of law, interpret constitutional and statutory provisions, and determine the meaning or applicability of the terms of an agency action." Sooner or later, we'll talk about whether TSA followed the court's order, the lawfulness of wrapping its decision-making in secrecy, and the arbitrary nature of a policy that has no public justification.