J. D. Heyes
February 16, 2013
Air travelers in the United States know that producing a photo ID when passing through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint is pretty standard fare. What most did not know; however, is that there is no requirement to do so in the TSA operating regulations.
Security is the agency’s middle name, but apparently that’s not a high priority.
An investigation by San Francisco CBS television affiliate KPIX 5 found that there is no federal law requiring passengers to show a photo ID; in fact, the investigation found that passengers “can pass through security checkpoints using a broad range of documentation including utility bills, prescriptions, credit cards, and even (retailer) Costco membership cards – a fact that surprises veteran travelers,” the station reported.
“I mean I’m about as vanilla as can be and I am being patted down,” said Patrice Culligan, who told the station she was catching a flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C., and that she has been the subject of in-depth security measures – even after she had provided government identification at the security checkpoint.
ID, no ID, just get on the plane…
The TSA essentially blew off the non-requirement as, well, a non-issue.
“It’s about validating who you are so if it’s a library card or a Costco card or a school ID, they are all not forms of government identification, but at least it is something that is printed with your name on it,” TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said in an interview.
So in other words, if you’re a terrorist you don’t need some high-dollar back-door man to create a phony photo ID so you can fool the guards; all you need to do is go check out a book at the local library, give any name you like and voila, you can board any commercial airliner in the U.S.
But wait, Melendez warns, anyone who does not produce a government-issued photo ID will have to undergo a secondary screening, like swabbing of luggage and inspection of carry-on baggage.
Upon being given this information, the television station sent one of its producers undercover to test this security arrangement. The producer arrived at the airports in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose without official documentation.
“In every case,” WPIX reported, “the producer was allowed to pass through security using a student ID and personal credit cards and was not subject to secondary screening before gaining entrance to the terminal.”
Rather, the TSA generally reserves such treatment to infants and old ladies and attractive young females.
At the San Francisco and Oakland terminals, the station reported, the producer was asked by TSA guards if she had a Costco card she could show them (does the TSA own stock in Costco or something?).
The station reported that when the producer went to the Oakland airport a second time without any form of documentation whatsoever, she was brought over to the side of the security line and questioned, but was nonetheless allowed to proceed to her flight fewer than 20 minutes later.
Some independent aviation security experts said they are concerned that such a policy of discretion gives TSA agents on the ground too much leeway and poses a security risk.
“Every time you introduce a vulnerability, our adversaries are going to take advantage of that,” Billie Vincent, former director of the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Civil Aviation Security told the station.
Even the former head of the TSA, Kip Hawley, says “airport security is broken.”
Wanted: Less regulatory enforcement from the TSA
In an essay published in The Wall Street Journal in April 2012, Hawley outlined the problems:
More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. … The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.
Hawley makes two recommendations: Refocus the agency’s attention on why it was created – to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transport system; and manage risk rather than enforce a boatload of cumbersome regulations that burden travelers but don’t reinforce the agency’s original core mission.
“I tried to follow these principles as the head of the TSA, and I believe that the agency made strides during my tenure. But I readily acknowledge my share of failures as well. I arrived in 2005 with naive notions of wrangling the organization into shape, only to discover the power of the TSA’s bureaucratic momentum and political pressures,” Hawley wrote.
Vincent’s suggestion was that Congress should add a new regulation: Make it a requirement that passengers must provide an official ID.
Some things never change – like bureaucracies and bad ideas.