The U.S. Department of Chutzpah

For PR professionals, the holiday season is like one big Friday at 5:00 p.m. That’s when you release information that you don’t want getting too much attention.

So it’s no surprise that we learned yesterday that the Transportation Security Administration has just awarded itself the authority to make airport strip-search machines mandatory. Until now, having a machine create a digital representation of your unclothed body has had a happy alternative: a prison-style pat-down! (That’s my choice. It’s sometimes a little massage-y.)

It takes a lot of gall for the Department of Homeland Security to make this move now, though—not because it’s the holiday season, but because the DHS (of which TSA is a part) is currently under a court order to establish the legality of its strip-search machine policies in toto.

In July 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DHS had failed to follow the procedures required by law when it established its policy of using strip-search machines for primary screening. The court ordered the DHS to “promptly” undertake a notice-and-comment rulemaking. Four years later, our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute initiated a new lawsuit seeking to compel DHS to finish what was amounting to an endless rulemaking process.

DHS recently told the D.C. Circuit that it would finish the regulation by March 3, 2016. In the meantime, they’re screwing the lid down just a little bit more on air travelers. Chutzpah!

When the regulation is done, it can finally be challenged under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious standard.” Our John Mueller and Mark Stewart have already shown that strip-search machines are a cost-ineffective security measure.

In a similar vein, rumors are swirling that the DHS will soon announce full REAL ID enforcement at airports. The quiet week between Christmas and New Years seems like a ripe time to get that news out.

They’ve said they’d give 120 days’ notice that TSA is going to start rejecting drivers’ licenses and IDs from states that don’t participate in the national ID system. A December announcement means that April would be white-knuckle time for travelers.

There will not be enforcement, of course. The goal is to bluff about enforcement to state legislatures in advance of their 2016 legislative sessions, so that they’ll pass laws implementing the federal national ID mandate. Just yesterday, two DHS bureaucrats issued orders to Minnesota governor Mark Dayton (D) detailing how the law in Minnesota must change to satisfy their demands.

Federal bureaucrats ordering around governors and legislators! Chutzpah!

DHS isn’t dumb enough to do it … I’m sometimes wrong … but actual REAL ID enforcement at airports would be quite a show. Not only would there be howls of protest aimed at TSA in the media, the DHS would catch a delicious lawsuit from some law-abiding American citizen trying to visit family who is denied the right to travel.

The lawsuit would expose that DHS enforcement is entirely arbitrary. REAL ID is unworkable, and the agency has been handing out waivers like they were candy canes since the statutory deadline in 2008. Having selected a pared-down “material compliance checklist” to treat as compliance, DHS bureaucrats have been arbitrarily claiming that some states are in compliance and some states are not, giving waivers to some states and not to others based on internal, self-selected criteria. That is not how law works, and once they try to enforce, they’ll have to square-up their enforcement efforts with the terms of the REAL ID law, equal protection, and due process.

Should DHS try to show that it has rational criteria for refusing IDs, that may bring in the question of ID security, which, like strip-search machines, is another cost-effectiveness loser. I won’t belabor that point, but my Christmas list includes a TSA and DHS operating under the rule of law, required to defend its programs in light of solid points made by security analysts like this guy Adam.

Learn more than you ever wanted to know about REAL ID from this recent Hill briefing.