News - CAPPS with nine lives

Government kills airline profiling program — or does it?

The recent announcement
by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge canceling the controversial government plan to color-code anyone wishing to travel by commercial airline is great news for all Americans who value their privacy, and who believe we can and should fight acts of terrorism without gutting the Bill of Rights.

The plan, known by its acronym, CAPPS II, would have constituted a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the government from gathering evidence on us absent a reason to suspect we've done something wrong. Just as important, however, is that it would not have measurably improved our ability to catch terrorists.

Lest jubilation at this rare victory over increased government power set in, however, let's take a look at what the folks who work for Ridge have said in the wake of their boss' announcement that CAPPS II was "dead."

David Stone, acting head of the Transportation Security Administration, a component of Ridge's department, says the agency is "reshaping and repackaging" the screening program.

Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for Ridge's department, says "the administration continues to move forward on an automated aviation passenger prescreening system."

Suzanne Lube, yet another Homeland Security spokeswoman, says "the name CAPPS II may be dead, but the process of creating an automated passenger prescreening system to replace [it] will continue."

Mark Hatfield, a TSA spokesman, says "the program you knew as CAPPS II is essentially dead."

"Essentially" dead? That's the dead giveaway. What the government is doing here is proving once again why it cannot be trusted. Under pressure from Congress and the public, which have together raised the level of concern over this several-hundred million dollar program to the point where the administration could no longer ignore the outcry, the Department of Homeland Security appeared to swallow its pride (along with $102 million of taxpayer money already spent just on preliminary development of CAPPS II) and killed the program.

Immediately, however, bureaucrats under the secretary set out to assure their colleagues — and all those who would stand to have a stake in the system once fully implemented — that the program was not really dead; the secretary did not really mean what he said. In other words, while the name "CAPPS II" may no longer be "operative," rest assured, a program doing what it was supposed to do will survive.

Once again, we discover that simply shooting a government program doesn't kill it. Unless you stab it, then shoot it, then cut its head off, then burn it, and then scatter the ashes to the four winds and regularly monitor its demise, you haven't really killed it. So it appears with CAPPS II.

Even though the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (formerly known as the General Accounting Office), after conducting a congressionally mandated study of CAPPS II earlier this year, concluded that the program failed seven out of eight criteria set by Congress in order for CAPPS II to proceed, the program has not really flunked. The student will simply undergo a name change.

What does all this mean to us, the poor saps who have to travel commercially and undergo the demeaning and arbitrary checks at airports across the country, unlike our top-level government officials who can travel without going through any security in taxpayer-funded jets? First, it means that more than $100 million of our taxes have already been spent on a program that passed only one out of eight criteria set for its implementation. Second, it means that for now, we'll probably continue under a hodge-podge of trial program at various airports. Third, it means that taxpayers will have the opportunity to pay hundreds of millions more for the development of yet another government system designed to profile law-abiding citizens. Fourth, it reminds us again that government cannot be trusted.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, it again tells us, nearly three years after 9/11, that our government still does not get it. Washington persists in trying to catch terrorists by gathering evidence on non-terrorists — that is, the millions of law-abiding citizens who travel by commercial air carrier each day. And in the meantime, as the 9/11 Commission's report demonstrates, our foreign intelligence agencies continue to founder without vision or direction, and our government still does not have a comprehensive, government-wide, fully up-to-date watch list of terrorists, suspected terrorists, and associates of known terrorists.

Confused yet? You're not alone. So is the government.

Bob Barr served on the House Judiciary Committee when he represented parts of Cobb County and northwest Georgia in Congress from 1995 to 2003. He occupies the 21st Century Liberties Chair for Freedom and Privacy at the American Conservative Union and is a consultant on privacy issues for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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