I don’t know whether to be shocked, surprised or skeptical of this week’s reports that Customs and Border Protection is re-examining its policies toward stop-and-search of private aircraft. For now, I think I’ll go with skeptical.
The reasons are several, chief among them being that CBP is a giant, complex and largely opaque bureaucracy of the sort that even the best-intentioned administrator may have little hope of changing in any significant way. The modern security apparatus has become so all-pervasive and monolithic, that it has taken on a life of its own and CBP has been especially unresponsive to queries about its policies and procedures. There’s plenty of recent reporting on this, including this series done by WNYC’s On the Media.
CBP has always been a difficult agency, one that has collected numerous complaints about excessive force or harsh procedures against not just arriving foreign nationals, but U.S. citizens as well. This has gotten markedly worse, or at least the perception of it has, since 911. Vast sums have been thrown at Homeland Security which has duly constructed a security and monitoring apparatus that the Stasi would have envied. Abuses are inevitable.
Last summer, we got a call from an insider at one of the flight plan processing centers who reported—complained, actually—that CBP was contacting them a dozen times a day to query about flight plans that looked suspicious to them. Suspicious why? Because of some sort of profile or route that drug smugglers use, or so CBP thinks.
In this week’s story, we quoted a CBP official as saying the hit rate on these stops was 32 percent, but he didn’t define what “hit” means. I suspect many of these are drug enforcement busts. One was an FAA violation. We’re stopping airplanes without warrants on fishing expeditions that net FAA violations?
Maybe I’m imagining this, but I think the country is evolving on the idea of drug enforcement, coming to the realization that it is and has been a colossal waste of time and money. The expenditures hardly represent any worthwhile gain to society, yet enforcement continues because the money still flows and bureaucracies will best do what they always do: sustain themselves without regard to the merit of whatever mission was originally conceived. (I’m writing this in Colorado and we all know that this state has made its views of federal drugs laws abundantly clear.)
One alarming downside of all the Homeland Security money flowing downhill is the sharp militarization of local police departments, which CBP may call on to make an aircraft stop.So the cops show up with a SWAT team equipped with military-grade automatic weapons, body army and other equipment best suited to combat. These teams are being deployed more than ever before and use of excess force is all but unavoidable.
This week’s reporting may suggest—emphasizing the “may”—that our do-nothing Congress has put enough pressure on CBP to actually respond to the complaints. Heretofore, the agency has essentially acted as though the Fourth Amendment doesn’t exist and has steadfastly refused to explain its policies or procedures. So a CBP official actually going on record to AOPA's Mark Baker as admitting there’s a need for self-examination might represent progress. But someone still has to climb the steep mountain of actually changing the culture all the way down into the ranks. There’s always someone who doesn’t get the memo or, worse, just chooses to ignore it. Maybe this represents a sustainable trend, maybe it doesn’t. Let’s just wait and see.
Maybe there's another potential welcome crack on the security monolith. For several months, I’ve been using TSAPre on virtually all of the airline flights I’ve taken. I got into the Global Entry program. This program and others like it represent a return to sanity as it essentially dials back security to pre-911 levels without allowing it to become too casual. In other words, it’s the appropriate level of intrusion and I’ve found that TSA has implemented it effectively. I have no complaints.
So do these two things taken together represent a swing of the pendulum of sorts? Possibly, although the challenge of changing these bureaucracies at the in-the-trench level remains. I’m not convinced that’s doable, but what we’re seeing here is better than a step in the opposite direction.