Monday, November 15, 2004

The Growth of Secret Law

SECRECY NEWS - Last month, Helen Chenoweth-Hage attempted to board a United Airlines flight from Boise to Reno when she was pulled aside by airline personnel for additional screening, including a pat-down search for weapons or unauthorized materials. Chenoweth-Hage, an ultra-conservative former Congresswoman (R-ID), requested a copy of the regulation that authorizes such pat-downs. "She said she wanted to see the regulation that required the additional procedure for secondary screening and she was told that she couldn't see it," local TSA security director Julian Gonzales told the Idaho Statesman

"She refused to go through additional screening [without seeing the regulation], and she was not allowed to fly," he said. "It's pretty simple." Chenoweth-Hage wasn't seeking disclosure of the internal criteria used for screening passengers, only the legal authorization for passenger pat-downs. Why couldn't they at least let her see that? asked Statesman commentator Dan Popkey. "Because we don't have to," Mr. Gonzales replied crisply. "That is called 'sensitive security information.' She's not allowed to see it, nor is anyone else," he said.

Thus, in a qualitatively new development in U.S. governance, Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know. . .

A new report from the Congressional Research Service describes with welcome clarity how, by altering a few words in the Homeland Security Act, Congress "significantly broadened" the government's authority to generate "sensitive security information," including an entire system of "security directives" that are beyond public scrutiny, like the one former Rep. Chenoweth-Hage sought to examine.

Much of the CRS discussion revolves around the case of software designer and philanthropist John Gilmore, who was prevented from boarding an airline flight when he refused to present a photo ID. (A related case involving no-fly lists has been brought by the ACLU.) "I will not show government-issued identity papers to travel in my own country," Mr. Gilmore said. Mr. Gilmore's insistence on his right to preserve anonymity while traveling on commercial aircraft is naturally debatable -- but the government will not debate it. Instead, citing the statute on "sensitive security information," the Bush Administration says the case cannot be argued in open court.

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