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GA A Soft Target for Security?

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Someone is lying or badly mistaken about what happened at Long Beach Airport on May 22 because the version of the events told by pilot David Perry and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency are both divergent and adamantly defended by both parties. But regardless of who held which weapons and for what purpose, the most interesting thing about the incident is the light it shines on the way general aviation is viewed by the country's increasingly muscular security apparatus. Out of the shadows, the Customs and Border Protection agency looms as a confident and capable paramilitary force with the ability to take command over local law enforcement agencies and use them in ways that their own operational limitations might not allow.

We'll leave it up to the courts to decide if the Constitution or Perry's civil rights were violated in the aggressive and intimidating ramp check he and his passengers underwent that day. But regardless of the legality of the incident, the reality is that GA pilots planning to cross the border should anticipate this kind of attention, even though the CBP insists that the Long Beach case was "slightly unusual" in its tone because of a "heightened alert."

Although we'll probably never know exactly what prompted heavily armed law enforcement personnel to frog march citizens of their own country to individual searches and interrogations without warrants or even allegations of wrongdoing, suffice to say these folks had done their homework and believed they were within their rights to do it. Something about that plane or the people in it gave them enough justification to point guns and detain the party without any rights being read or any notion of what they might be under suspicion of. And that's where the real concern lies.

Transparency is the only protection against abuses by government and the lack of information forthcoming from the CBP under the cover of security or privacy issues naturally raises the suspicion that abuses are taking place. That's a serious matter in a society that cherishes freedom but it's further amplified by the circumstances in this case.

Since the CBP won't tell us what, exactly, they were looking for on May 22 in Perry's Cessna 210, we'll have to make some educated guesses. And since they've admitted that their actions were unusual in this case, we'll have to assume that someone on that plane was suspected of being capable of responding in kind. Also, because the Perry party was free to go an hour later, it's safe to assume that there was no evidence to support any of those suspicions.

Now, imagine if the same scene played out in a commercial airport terminal, the lineup for the border at Tijuana or a crossing into Ontario. Certainly there are people who use those facilities every day who have criminal records, ties to organized crime, are suspected smugglers or whatever. Without arrest warrants and virtually 100 percent certainty that the objects of detainment and search were engaged in or plotting illegal activity, there is not a chance that law enforcement personnel or CBP agents would draw weapons and conduct on-the-spot interrogations and searches. The public wouldn't stand for it and the authorities know that.

So why would they believe that it's an appropriate response on an airport ramp in Long Beach, Calif.?

Perhaps it's just the fact that under the new regulations for cross-border flights, CBP has new tools to try and responses to exercise and maybe this and the other incidents we've heard about are just a manifestation of that. Law-abiding pilots and their passengers would therefore have nothing to fear from security rules that may be appropriate and well intentioned.

But it could also be that GA is a soft target for this kind of show of force. The new manifest requirements are bound to turn up pilots and passengers that trigger security responses and the ramp checks, with or without guns, are a convenient method for the security personnel to pad their statistics, regardless of whether they actually enhance national security.

The natural response from pilots would be to think twice about crossing the border in a private aircraft and that would be the wrong response. We should never forget that the overarching goal of post 9/11 security measures is to ensure safety, freedom and liberty for law abiding citizens so that we can go about our normal business. However, as David Perry can attest, that can be difficult to do with your fingers intertwined on your head while you're staring at the muzzle of a gun.

Comments (36)

"The natural response from pilots would be to think twice about crossing the border in a private aircraft and that would be the wrong response. We should never forget that the overarching goal of post 9/11 security measures is to ensure safety, freedom and liberty for law abiding citizens so that we can go about our normal business. However, as David Perry can attest, that can be difficult to do with your fingers intertwined on your head while you're staring at the muzzle of a gun."

Russ, I hear you, but it's got to give me pause about whether to subject my loved ones to this sort of treatment just for a long weekend or vacation in Canada. In good conscience, I suspect that I can't subject them to such a risk or trauma.

Similarly, where in the past I have been eager to volunteer for cross-(northern) border Angel Flights, as many of my fellow pilots aren't keen on running the risk of penalties and complying with the various regulations for that type of operation, I'll have to rethink that, too. Reports of multiple incidents are too distrubing to continue on "business as usual" until these matters get sorted out over time.

Posted by: Scott Dyer | June 10, 2009 4:16 PM    Report this comment

Possibly the silver lining to this incident is that the bill that passed the house to help reign in TSA will get some traction in the Senate. To me, it is incomprehensible to order a citizen out of an aircraft at gunpoint for a "routine" inspection. We are expected to be professional and courteous to TSA, or Customs, or whoever the law enforcement agent may be, or face the penalty - I expect to be treated with the same courtesy.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | June 10, 2009 4:40 PM    Report this comment

Russ and AVWEB... kudos to you guys!!! GREAT article! This is the ONLY news outlet where I've seen reporting or discussion about this issue. Now, if we could only get some main-stream media to pay attention. Thanx again.

Posted by: tim greer | June 10, 2009 5:16 PM    Report this comment

As I was interviewed by AVweb two years about eAPIS and its potential impact, I had no idea that this new rule could have such an impact that CBP, LBPD, etc. would take such action against four good persons who just wanted to head south and do a little fishing. We have sent a letter to the Director of Field Operations in Long Beach, San Diego, and Tucson where the four actions took place requesting a full explanation of the incident. We are waiting for a response. And I really hope that AOPS, COPA, etc. steps up to the plate on this one. It affects all. To see this letter along with a lot more information on eAPIS, etc. go to www.bajabushpilots.com

Posted by: Jack McCormick | June 10, 2009 7:28 PM    Report this comment

It is time to bring a Civil Suit against the parties responsible. This is precisely what the ACLU is supposed to defend against. Working with the appropriate parties has failed. I can't believe what is happening to our "free" society. I can't believe it is happening here in America. Jack McCormick, when are we going to file a civil lawsuit?

Posted by: Jay Garnett | June 11, 2009 4:19 AM    Report this comment

I see the potential for inaction, on the part of GA, as a tacit (in TSA’s mind) approval to continue and expand such activities. I heard that there was a statement by Janet Napolitano that indicated that she was initiating a security protocol from small water craft that was going to be more restrictive than that applied to GA. I applaud security measures, but protecting from realistic threats and instituting measures against every conceivable threat is two different things. I wonder if the business term ‘diminishing return on investment’ has been considered (then again they may have the expectation that directive compliance could be expensed to those regulated).

Posted by: Douglas Manuel | June 11, 2009 7:20 AM    Report this comment

People, wake up and look at yourselves in the mirror. To roughly quote Ben Franklin, those who would exchange liberty for security deserve NEITHER liberty of security. How many of you have quoted the article about the CBP and forwarded it to your Congressmen? I have, and I hope everyone who reads this will too. It is time to take OUR country back from the fascists.

Posted by: Art Ahrens | June 11, 2009 7:45 AM    Report this comment

Jack Bauer on "24", the television program, is the can-do, go-to kinda guy."Criminal Minds", and "NCIS" all reflect Hollywood style government agents doing pretty much as they please in the name of security, breaking the Constitution and our civil rights. Certainly Hollywood has presented anyone as a threat to our nation, and that "gives" the Hollywood government agents the right to do anything they wish in the name of freedom. We need to distinguish between a Hollywood threat, and a real threat. We have lost our knowledge of history. Are we becoming a victim of our technology? Was a cross reference on a list of terrorists the problem with the passengers on this flight? Wasn't the late Honorable Senator Ted Kennedy on such a list...oh no that was someone else who had the same name! oops! We need to move out of the Hollywood world, into reality, and not give up our freedoms. I had stopped flying in the early 70's, but restarted just months before 911,knowing that if I didn't exercise my certificate that eventually my right might disappear. To those who are willing to give up flights for Angel Flight...consider twice what you are willing to give up..after all why did you go into Angel Flight to begin with....Now I have probably been added to a list...I became a vetted pilot for the Washington FRZ (Flight Restricted Zone)knowing that if people didn't exercise the privilege, then it would go away. Don't let that happen. John J. Bersch CFI, EXP 1/31/1972

Posted by: John Bersch | June 11, 2009 10:17 AM    Report this comment

1. I share Perry's outrage at the CPB gestapo goon squad treatment. Since when do US citizens require gun-point interrogation to get permission to leave the country? 2. GA is seen as a soft target for "roid-rage" tactics by what hopefully is a minority of the CPB staff because of our collective apathy. When the eAPIS NPRM was published, only a fraction of 1% of all pilots objected (2,000 or so). When the TSA thus emboldened by the DHS/CPB clamp-down on GA, proposed their LASP program, only 7,000 people responded (unanimously) against the proposal. Now we have the secret airport security program launched on June 1 and the boating crowd and stray dogs wandering close to the border are next. 3. We expect AOPA and other alphabet groups to carry the ball. However, all they do is pander, and offer to "work with the TSA". We need to know what realistic problem DHS/CPB/TSA are trying to solve. We pretty much know that is there is none. 4. Until we somehow collectively, and in large numbers, make the point that bullying gun-point security tactics are unacceptable, we can expect more of this behavior. This incident should be used in as many ways as possible to uncover the underlying thinking in DHS's obviously flawed risk assessment models, and also the legality of ad-hoc para-military tactics displayed in Long Beach.

Posted by: David MacRae | June 11, 2009 10:18 AM    Report this comment

My jaw hit the desk when I read about this incident. This is the type of response I expect in a third world country, not the U.S.A.

Just as you are secure against unreasonable search and seizure in your home or automobile, this should also apply to your aircraft.

What was the probable cause that triggered this extreame response from the CBP? There should be an immediate investigation into this case by an independent group.

Posted by: Ric Lee | June 11, 2009 10:23 AM    Report this comment

The situation was "slightly unusual"? Wow. What enforcement response might a more than slightly unusual situation justify? Imagine that treatment from a local law enforcement department, with no real reason given afterwards as to why. In any case, it would ruin your whole day at the least.

It might be a little more understandable had they been ENTERING the country as opposed to leaving it. But still...

If truly innocent people are being, or are subject to being treated like this, where's the trust going to be, that we ought to be able to have in those of us who've been authorized (by "the people") to use this kind of force against the "bad guys"?

An explanation is in order.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | June 11, 2009 10:46 AM    Report this comment

As a neighbour to the north I have been doing the Sun n Fun trips and Oskosh trips for many years, not to mention cross border trips to the USA to see friends. The cross border trips involved filing of a fpl, obtaining a discrete xpndr code, ensuring you had a sticker for your aircraft at a cost of around $25.00 per year and now we have eAPIS and TSA. Any law biding person will obviously comply with these requirements or face the consequences. Unfortunately in this case (eAPIS and TSA) it also forces people to make a decision as to whether it is actually worth all the hassle/risk of taking their personal A/C to the USA. I, as a law biding citizen have made my decision and will now be staying at home.

Posted by: Chet Eleveld | June 11, 2009 11:45 AM    Report this comment

If our collective voice of outrage is not heard loud and clear, there will only be more of this outrageous and unconstitutional behavior by these agencies that are supposedly "protecting" us! File the lawsuits, contact Congress, AOPA/EAA/NBAA take action! If we only respond by limiting our flying, then our cause is lost and they know it! Fly more, follow the rules, protest, document, and publicize every case of harassment..and vote!

Posted by: Craig Dow | June 11, 2009 12:24 PM    Report this comment

I voted for Obama because Bush tossed out the Constitution and was taking away our freedoms. Now it's getting much worse. We're living in a Police State. Laurence Coen

Posted by: Laurence Coen | June 11, 2009 1:29 PM    Report this comment

This incident makes me sad. I am sorry to see further erosion of our individual liberties and I am sorry to see law enforcement act more like an occupying army rather than public servants.

I am tired of the hysteria about little airplanes and the accompanying Rambo response. There are easier ways to grab people than an armed standoff on the ramp. Since they were obviously under surveillance, why wait for a situation w/a loaded airplane?

BTW, did anybody tell the criminals they need to file for a border crossing (and risk their own little interview)?

Posted by: Guy Cole | June 11, 2009 1:39 PM    Report this comment

I've been on the 'terrorist watch list' ever since 9/11. Why? Apparently, I share a name and birthday with someone of 'interest'. So, I guess this guarantees I'm going to get the 'drawn guns' response if I fly as a GA pilot to Canada and back. Great.

I have no problem with inspection, but the drawn-guns part is ridiculous. IMO this incident calls for a Freedom of Information Act request to determine why what should have been a courteous ramp inspection became armed harassment by law enforcement personnel. I agree with the comments above about the need both to respect law enforcement and for transparency in their operations in order for this society to function correctly, and this incident negated both.

This is why I've been a member of both EAA and AOPA for many years--to help fight for my freedom to fly. I intend to write AOPA and ask when they intend to file a FOIA request in this case to understand why guns were drawn.

Posted by: Robert Johnson | June 11, 2009 1:42 PM    Report this comment

I was wondering, in America, what has been used more often to commit acts of terrorism – General Aviation Aircraft or Ryder Rent-A-Trucks and which one gets more security scrutiny?

Posted by: Douglas Manuel | June 11, 2009 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Russ, first allow me to say thank you for covering this story. I certainly hope you won't let go.

Gentlemen, Russ is doing his part. Now you do yours. Forward links to this blog and Avweb coverage. Get the story out to your Congressman, you local news media, national rights organizations....anyone who might care about the rights of American citizens.

This isn't just about pilots.

Posted by: Dan Horton | June 11, 2009 2:30 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the blog, Russ. To those of you who are, unfortunately, thinking of yourselves first and disregarding those whom you used to help in regard to Angel Flights and such, please reconsider your level of Fear - or apathy if that's the case. After 9/11, when a few angry punks used Fear and our equipment to surprise and kill Americans we, wrongly, adopted Fear as our reaction, and now, after being fed voraciously for years the beast has eventually manifested from our government like a grizzly and is coming back around to bite us in many ways, like the subject in this blog shows. Angrily blaming the government or others wastes energy, it only becomes a continuous argument. Please examine your own use of Fear and dispel it when able, and let's thoughtfully, confidently proceed as usual in our flying endeavors with heads held high, all the while working hard to balance out the government reactions and actions in this climate of Fear by writing, talking and pursuing fairness and equity when we don't see it - like this incident in Long Beach shows. Don't forsake the wonderful people who really need our help as in the Angel flights - and all those who benefit from general aviation .Thanks for the opportunity.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 11, 2009 3:53 PM    Report this comment

Things I read on the net compare the present administration to Hitler's take over. sort of makes you wonder..

Posted by: Oscar Moffitt | June 11, 2009 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Things I read on the net compare the present administration to Hitler's take over. sort of makes you wonder..<<

Might I suggest a little skepticism toward "things you read on the net?" (Including our blogs, I might add.)

What you saw at Long Beach and other incidents like it is unlikely to be the result of direction from on high from the current administration. It is more likely to be typical bureaucratic mission creep and lack of clear guidelines at the agency level. If these are drawn to the attention of Congress and even the White House by the squeaky wheel method, we might see some changes.

I've already written my Congressman with a link to the story.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2009 5:05 PM    Report this comment

With all due respect to those in the American government who are doing what they believe to be the correct action to keep the border safe I have one question....how in the world do you plan on eliminating/minimizing border crossing issues with what is now in place. I realize that every country requires some type of border control, however for GA to be burdened with these additional ones leaves me wondering. I cross the border with a valid passport...just with all that you have my history not to mention all the other things we need to do before we head off for our border crossing flight. Do you really think that a person with questionable intent is going to apply for a decal..file a fpl...register for eAPIS etc ...it seems that we, the law biding public have become the victims. Possibly I am missing something here and there are some underlying reasons for all of this, so I will stay tuned to be enlightened by someone with a better grasp on the situation.

Posted by: Chet Eleveld | June 11, 2009 6:05 PM    Report this comment

In Iraq, we have all seen the results of giving a group of civilians with questionable inteligence big guns, immunity, and limited supervision. All of these newly created agencys are trying to justify there exsistence, and dream up solutions in search of a problem.Until these gustapo groups get there ass burned, as the Air Force did for chasing down and harassing jets that were LEGALLY flying in military operations areas, these insidents will continue and intensify. The emails, faxes, phone calls and letters should be burning up your congressmans and senators ears!!!!!!!

Posted by: Al Dyer | June 11, 2009 9:13 PM    Report this comment

Paul - great point to make our concerns known to congress. I just emailed my comments to my representative and senators, and to the White House.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | June 11, 2009 9:16 PM    Report this comment

Clearly if they admitted that the whole episode was a mistake on the part of the CBP it would make them look pretty bad.

It is obvious that we have to do something about our own government. We have turned into a police state where no one is safe from their own government. What ever happened to american values?

Posted by: John Johnson | June 11, 2009 9:44 PM    Report this comment

The fact that CBP is so quiet on this issue makes me wonder if there weren't ulterior motives at work. Specifically, had the pilot or one of his passengers ever been suspected of moving large sums of money out of the U.S. As our government systematically limits travel and the flow of money across our borders in the name of terrorism prevention, we can expect to see activities legal but suspect penalized to a greater extent. TSA has questioned any sum of money found in their screening activities that the individual screener deems excessive even when the amount is within the legal limits for inter-country travel.

Posted by: Sean O'toole | June 12, 2009 11:25 AM    Report this comment

Face it. Laws don't apply to them, the gov't, only to us, the lowly citizenry (notice "us" is spelled US?? That's who WE, the People used to be...) the gov't has become a separate entity from US, with the power of Gort the robot (see the movie "The Day The Earth Stood Still") to do whatever the hell they want. And they are.

Posted by: Jeff Pearson | June 12, 2009 12:20 PM    Report this comment

Is this recent abuse really so different than that specifically allowed by a typical TFR? The "use of deadly force" is specifically "authorized", and the TSA duly reminds us of this in every VIP TFR that I have bothered to read all of. Imagine a couple of hum-vees full of military police, raiding a schoolyard located 34.5 miles from the POTUS, and using their fully-automatic weapons to turn the children into hamburger just for flying control-line model airplanes. Bizarre? Of course it would be, but a literal reading of the VIP TFRs indicates this could actually happen, and there would be no legal recourse for the survivors.

Was the Bill of Rights repealed by the Patriot Act? Do you feel safer now?

While we still have a system vaguely reminiscent of a Republic, we should use our outrage right away, and let Congress have an earful, and then another, and keep it up until the Federal Government understands that "reasonable" is defined by the electorate, not the bureaucrats.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | June 14, 2009 10:32 PM    Report this comment

I agree with most of the comments here.

The Global War On Terror is a cruel hoax on the American people, and we in aviation are impacted even more.

Just to keep things in perspective, in another hoax called The War On Drugs, back during the early days of Ronald Reagan's drug war, Gustavo Viera was out flying his Cherokee one weekend morning when he was mistaken by Customs as being a smuggler. A Customs Blackhawk tailed him and landed behind him at the Kendall Gliderport. Armed US agents and Bahamian agents held Viera at gunpoint and pushed him to the ground. The Cherokee was blown over by the Blackhawk.

Naw, we ain't no Police State here.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | June 22, 2009 9:00 PM    Report this comment

Anybody heard anything from their congressmen or White House yet?? Thought so.

Posted by: Art Ahrens | June 23, 2009 7:08 AM    Report this comment

Actually, I do get mail from my senators and representative. It sometimes takes months, and unless what I asked for is actually already passed, the response amounts to a regurgitation of relevant facts I generally already knew, and a "thank you for expressing your views", but it is proof they read those letters.

If even just 1% of the pilots in this country write as I do, you better believe they'd be very responsive to what we are saying.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | June 24, 2009 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Yeah, like they were so responsive to those citizens who objected to the bailout last fall. REAL responsive, to the moneyed interests.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | June 24, 2009 8:22 PM    Report this comment

6 years spent in the USAF, 23 more in local Law Enforcement. I took 2 oaths of office to Protect and Defend the Constitution of the United States. I am appalled at what Nazis the TSA/CBP have become in the interest of "National Security", and the ability to violate what Laws I spent years protecting. Absolutely, people involved in this incident need to be sued/jailed.

Posted by: matt bucko | June 30, 2009 2:02 PM    Report this comment

On July 4th, CBP made an unreasonable search of us just prioe to our scheduled departure at 10 am from Palomar, Carlsbad, CA. It took 3 CBP officers to do what 1 officer could have done. These guys were hell bent on finding something to justify their actions. This whole eAPIS crap has got to stop! Are they really that stupid to think we will file a plan and then carry some weapons and cash to San Felipe?? Get real DHS and CBP!!!!!

Posted by: michael bennett | July 20, 2009 12:56 AM    Report this comment

Justify their actions, and justify the very existence of a new federal bureaucracy spawned by the hoax that is the GWOT.

Here in Florida with the Bahamas so close, the numerous boat traffic between the islands and Florida do not have the requirements that we in aviation do. Patently unfair.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | July 20, 2009 7:28 AM    Report this comment

Michael, The issue is gaining traction in Congress, so don't miss an opportunity. Carefully document your CBP encounter and send the account to your Senator and Representative.

No government by the people if the people don't participate.

Posted by: Dan Horton | July 20, 2009 9:11 AM    Report this comment

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