Mission Creep at Airport Security

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Several employees at the Transportation Security Administration are alleging that racial profiling has become rampant in what is supposed to be a "behavior detection" test program at Boston's Logan Airport. As the New York Times reports:

At a meeting last month with T.S.A. officials, officers at Logan provided written complaints about profiling from 32 officers, some of whom wrote anonymously. Officers said managers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals had led co-workers to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems.

There are two distressing components to these allegations. One, which the media has focused on, is the racial profiling. The other, which has been less discussed, is that the TSA is even setting out to find passengers with drugs, immigration violations and outstanding warrants in the first place.

The purpose of airport security is to prevent people from committing terrorist attacks or other violent crimes on airplanes. It is not to give the government an opportunity to screen people, without probable cause, for general criminal violations.

The public has been far too willing to give the government invasive powers in the name of preventing terrorism. As we have seen with Patriot Act mission creep, when we respond to a crisis by giving the government new, narrow powers, politicians and bureaucrats will come up with all sorts of broad, unrelated ways to use them.

The TSA and Congress need to evaluate what has gone wrong in Boston and why its employees are alleging that racial profiling is going on. They also need to make sure that whatever program they are implementing is targeted at preventing terrorism and that the TSA is not simply becoming an end-run around the Fourth Amendment.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

 

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