Tuesday, May 16, 2006

ESR | May 8, 2006 | How quickly we forget

ESR | May 8, 2006 | How quickly we forget

Given their apparent operation in relatively isolated terror cells, it's unlikely the PATRIOT Act would have stopped 9/11. It has, however, quite handily given law enforcement agencies the tools to go after accused drug dealers in Florida, embezzlers in Las Vegas, and an Oregon lawyer whose fingerprints were mistakenly matched by the FBI to those who bombed commuter trains in Madrid, Spain (the lawyer was eventually released, but only after Spanish officials insisted the prints belonged to others). In its newest iteration, it's also prevented you and me from buying cold medicine over the counter (maybe somebody somewhere thinks terrorists won't fly if they have the sniffle s...)

Last year, Congress passed the REAL ID Act. The measure was passed ostensibly to prevent terrorists and illegal aliens from getting a foothold here by creating a national ID system that would — at least in theory — make it hard for those not legally entitled to driver's licenses to get one. By making those licenses, in turn, a requirement for a job, a bank account, travel, and more, those in the country for nefarious reasons would be stymied by an inability to do many of the things they'd likely need to do. We were told these steps were necessary in our ongoing War on Terror.

States are screaming about the costs involved in setting up a massive system geared to background checks, review of multiple forms of required identification and proof of citizenship, and the databases that will be needed to run it all (New Hampshire has gone further with legislation making its way through the state legislature that would prohibit compliance with REAL ID there). Civil libertarians are screaming even louder than the states about the privacy violations on a mass scale and the vast potential for misuse of database information.

REAL ID wouldn't have stopped 9/11. Most of those directly responsible for the attacks were in the country legally, and their presence at jobs or in the classroom wouldn't have been questioned. With proper identification for legal aliens in hand, their boarding of an aircraft wouldn't have been questioned, either. Instead, what REAL ID will do is provide a way for the government to keep tabs on its own citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of 9/11. The President suggested that a single point of oversight would combine efforts and prove more efficient than the disparate jobs previously left un joined. Most Americans thought that was a pretty good idea, but I suspect their fresh grief didn't encourage them to think the matter through in entirety. Washington is filled with gigantic government programs, the vast majority of which began with good intentions but which have become inefficient, expensive, and corrupt beyond repair. Apparently, a broken system can only be fixed by breaking it some more with another behemoth bureaucracy.

The Transportation Security Administration, under the auspices of DHS, has created a variety of programs to make air transportation more secure. It instituted random passenger searches (perhaps United 93 would have been safer if a young woman, a middle-aged couple, and a family man had been searched — it's doubtful the four terrorists would have been culled from the line given the TSA's abhorrence for "racial profiling"). It set up a "no fly" list which ostensibly lists the names of those who might conceivably pose a danger and whose travel plans are therefore subject to added scrutiny (Senator Ted Kennedy and at least one infant are known to be, or have been, on the list, but no one knows what the criteria are or how the list can be corrected, nor can anyone say how it would protect any of us from those not known to have terrorist connections).

The TSA has also been touting a frequent flyer program that would allow us to travel with a bit more impunity — if, that is, we're willing to subject ourselves to an intrusive background check and provide our fingerprints or an iris scan to the powers that be (the program may be discontinued due to an unsurprising lack of interest). Aside from flying directly in the face of American jurisprudence and demanding we prove ourselves innocent without even an accusation of guilt, the system does little but collect data about obviously innocent Americans (who else, after all, would apply?) and eliminate a few extra minutes' wait at the airport.

What the TSA has not done is anything to facilitate a program that would permit those pilots who wish to carry firearms in the cockpit to do so. The TSA has, in fact, deliberately dragged its feet even after special orders from Congress demanded it cease the delays and get the program moving. Most pilots who are trained, ready, and willing to arm themselves are disinclined to go through the extraordinarily onerous hoops demanded by the TSA for them to do so — and they can't be blamed. Worse, even those who do go through the TSA's "training program" are hamstrung by regulations that so limit pilots' access to their firearms that gaping holes in security remain.

Of all of these measures involving the TSA, only one — the one the TSA is balking at — might have prevented 9/11 from happening.

Theoretically, the Department of Homeland Security is also in charge of border control. Keeping a handle on who comes into the country is essential if we wish to prevent more terror attacks. Though most of the 9/11 terrorists were in the country legally, a few were not. Of those who were, a number were here after their visas expired. With more stringent entry requirements and with prompt follow-ups, it's probable that many of them would have left or been forced to leave the country prior to September 11, 2001. It seems to me that that's more than enough justification for policing our borders!

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