The Boston Globe’s spotlight series has struck again, only this time the purpose is unclear. Does the Globe want to protect the civil liberties of Americans, or does it believe that our law-enforcement community should be protecting the lives of Americans from terrorist attacks? Unfortunately, the Globe misses its mark in both instances with this series of irresponsible articles.
For two days, the Globe has featured this covert TSA program on their front page. The program is designed to identify potential terrorists and terrorist threats from American citizens who exhibit what some might believe are suspicious behaviors at airports…but which can also be totally benign behaviors. But nobody is being harassed or arrested, they are merely being watched and tracked while traveling by air.
The Globe apparently found out about this program through disgruntled TSA personnel who didn’t think it was valuable, necessary, or efficient. Are police officers who sit on a stakeout week after week with no results the best judges of whether “stakeouts work”? It seems to me that a program like this should be given time, and if even one terrorist attack is thwarted, perhaps it is well worth it.
Everyone knows that when you go to an airport, you are subject to excess scrutiny, including your behavior, your words, and your belongings. Decisions like whether you buy a one-way ticket to whether you check baggage are known potential red flags which can invite scrutiny. But there are other, perhaps less obvious signs. The Globe spotlight team helpfully prints the list of signs…helpful to potential terrorists, that is.
The ramping up of this program is unremarkable, given that it is meant to discover potential terrorism based on relatively flimsy evidence, but it is exactly the type of program a “proactive” organization would use. The obvious sources (monitoring terrorist chatter, informants, interrogating prisoners, etc.) are all being done. Could this program produce helpful results? Of course it could. Would it? You’d have to try it to find out.
But unlike monitoring non-traveling citizens’ emails or phone calls covertly, which are possible violations of privacy and thus potentially illegal, airline passengers give up many such rights, include the right not to be searched or not to have their suspicious behavior profiled by law enforcement and then watched. Such vigilance should not be a surprise and is entirely appropriate. The only inappropriate thing we learned in the Globe series is their willingness to make Americans less safe through their reckless disclosure of this program and the details around it.
The article also does not make it clear that apparently only citizens who travel abroad are ever profiled and then watched on future U.S. flights. If there are people who are acting suspiciously and have recently flown to, say, Turkey, I have no problem putting them on a secret watch list if they travel again, if the TSA thinks this might be a good way to identify potential terrorists before they strike. Following them home, checking up on them at work, tapping their phones…these would all require much more evidence and a court order. But watching them closely when they travel through our airports and on our flights seems perfectly fine to me.
We also have a recurring pattern of finding out that home-grown terrorists were in contact or received training or support from overseas terrorist groups after the fact. Many of them also post pro-terrorist propaganda on their social media pages. The First Amendment may protect such speech, but I’d like to have someone with a badge and a gun monitoring the flights of such individuals when I’m on their plane, thank you very much.
I’m also perplexed at the insinuations that this necessarily covert program “may be” illegal. The TSA has evidently briefed oversight committees of Congress on the program, and in such a classified briefing, our lawmakers can pursue the legality and even the effectiveness of such a program. But having agents tasked with doing the work leaking details that should not be made public to the Boston Globe, and then having the Globe print this on their front page, is irresponsible for all parties involved.
The article does quote some legal opinions that so long as racial profiling is not taking place, the surveillance is probably OK. But the Globe senses a scoop, so it runs with the story anyway.
In a related story, the Globe reports that several states are suing the federal government to prevent the publication of plans on how to use a 3-D printer to construct a handgun. What, no photos of the plans? Seems like the potential terrorists that the Globe is tipping off in the Quiet Skies series might find that information also useful.
I’m putting this post under the category of media criticism, partly because I don’t view a “spotlight” article the same as regular reporting, and partly because I don’t see strong evidence of political bias. There are some inklings, perhaps echoing the Left’s anti-Trump policies on illegal immigration (note the quote from someone from the Islamist Society, which has nothing to do with this article. The article makes it clear that the program does not profile based on race or religion.)
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