Activist Jonathan Corbett has lifted the lid on a chilling and hitherto secret TSA program which mandates that airlines operating outside of the U.S. conduct invasive security interviews of travelers before allowing them to return to America.
Corbett uncovered the program after he was asked a number of personal questions before being allowed to board an American Airlines flight from London Heathrow to New York in December, including why he was traveling and how long he had been away. Corbett initially refused to answer before a second agent made it clear that he would be stranded if he didn’t comply. After Corbett answered the questions, a security sticker was placed on his passport indicating he had completed the interview.
The procedure is very similar to the TSA’s domestic SPOT program, which was slammed as a $900 million dollar waste of money by a Government Accountability Office investigation in 2013 after it failed to identify a single terrorist.
Corbett wrote to American Airlines, who told him that the program was under the control of the DHS/TSA and that details were unavailable due to being under a “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) designation.
When Corbett asked the TSA what would happen if a traveler declined to take part in the interview, the TSA’s Office of Global Strategies Communications Desk responded, “If a passenger declines the security interview, American Airlines will deny the passenger boarding.”
“The airline and government is admitting here that there is a program to interview travelers as a condition of flying. I had never heard of such a thing before,” writes Corbett, noting that an extensive Google search turns up no public statements from the TSA about the program’s existence.
“U.S. citizens have the right to re-enter their home country. We also have the right to remain silent when interacting with government officials. The TSA has secretly tried to trick us into picking only one of those two rights,” states Corbett, asserting that the program is “an unconstitutional violation of our Fifth Amendment rights.”
Another question to arise is how airport authorities decide who to interview as part of this program. Does every single traveler have to submit to the interrogation or only those deemed a heightened security risk? If so, did Corbett’s prior legal battles with the TSA lead to him being singled out, in the same way that journalists who filed reports that were critical of the agency also faced extra harassment?
Corbett has filed two simultaneous lawsuits to ascertain why the TSA is forcing airlines to hire interrogators to operate outside international gates and is demanding a jury trial, asserting that the program is a violation of 5th amendment rights because it coerces travelers to comply.