iOS app Android app More

Antonia Blumberg   |   April 11, 2014   11:40 AM ET

Matzah is the bland, unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish Passover -- and it also happens to be very fragile.

Matzah is so fragile, in fact, that the Travel Security Administration (TSA) has released an advisory warning to ensure precautions for those traveling with matzo. In the statement released on the TSA's website:

Some travelers will be carrying boxes of matzoh, which are consumed as part of the Passover ritual. Matzoh can be machine or handmade and are typically very thin and fragile, and break easily. Passengers traveling with religious items, including handmade matzoh, may request a hand inspection by the TSO of the items at the security checkpoint.

In addition to matzo, TSA employees are expected to be aware of other religiously specific items and activities of Jewish travelers during Passover.

Our workforce is aware of the unique items carried by individuals and religious practices individuals may engage in while traveling. This may include reading of religious text or participating in prayer rituals. Observant travelers may be wearing a head covering, prayer shawl, and phylacteries -- in Hebrew, kippah, tallit, and tefillin.

The TSA issues similar advisories for other religious holidays. For Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the TSA issued an advisory in 2013 alerting travelers to various practices they might observe among Muslim passengers. "Passengers observing Ramadan may be seen reading, listening to or orally reciting the Holy Qur’an at airports and on airplanes."

  |   March 25, 2014    9:24 AM ET

While for most passengers trying to smuggle more than a 100ml of moisturiser in hand luggage on board a plane brings them out in a cold sweat, other travellers are more, well, brazen.

From exotic animals and human remains, to dangerous machinery and potential weapons, the range of bizarre items seized by airport customs raises more than eyebrows.

TAMI ABDOLLAH   |   March 18, 2014    6:31 AM ET

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A report on the emergency response to last year's shooting at Los Angeles International Airport cites serious shortcomings in communication between agencies that left major commanders in the dark and a long lag in establishing a coordinated response.

An early copy of the report to be presented to airport commissioners Tuesday was obtained by The Associated Press.

Silencing Whistleblowers Obama-Style

Peter Van Buren   |   March 4, 2014    9:29 AM ET

Supreme Court Edition? 

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

The Obama administration has just opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It’s taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.

Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean’s case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate -- a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing -- could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.

Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes -- and there’s no guarantee of that -- this would represent that body’s first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of “national security.”

On the other hand, should the court rule against the government, or simply turn down the case, whistleblowers like MacLean will secure a little more protection than they’ve had so far in the Obama years. Either way, an important message will be sent at a moment when revelations of government wrongdoing have moved from the status of obscure issue to front-page news.

The issues in the MacLean case -- who is entitled to whistleblower protection, what use can be made of retroactive classification to hide previously unclassified information, how many informal classification categories the government can create bureaucratically, and what role the Constitution and the Supreme Court have in all this -- are arcane and complex. But stay with me.  Understanding the depths to which the government is willing to sink to punish one man who blew the whistle tells us the world about Washington these days and, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Robert MacLean, Whistleblower

MacLean’s case is simple -- and complicated.

Here’s the simple part: MacLean was an air marshal, flying armed aboard American aircraft as the last defense against a terror attack. In July 2003, all air marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the TSA, which oversees the marshals, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to their cell phones cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. Fearing that such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public, MacLean worked his way through the system. He first brought his concerns to his supervisor and then to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.  Each responded that nothing could be done.

After hitting a dead end, and hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to change its policy, MacLean talked anonymously to a reporter who broadcast a critical story. After 11 members of Congress pitched in, the TSA reversed itself. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency dress and boarding policies that he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize marshals who work undercover. (On your next flight keep an eye out for the young man in khakis with a fanny pack and a large watch, often wearing a baseball cap and eyeing boarders from a first class seat.) This time the TSA recognized MacLean’s voice and discovered that he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.

When MacLean contested his dismissal through internal government channels, he discovered that, months after firing him, the TSA had retroactively classified the text message he had leaked. Leaking classified documents is more than cause enough to fire a federal worker, and that might have been the end of it. MacLean, however, was no typical cubicle-dwelling federal employee. An Air Force veteran, he asserted his status as a protected whistleblower and has spent the last seven years marching through the system trying to get his job back.

How Everything in Government Became Classified

The text message MacLean leaked was retroactively classified as “security sensitive information” (SSI), a designation that had been around for years but whose usage the TSA only codified via memo in November 2003. When it comes to made-up classifications, that agency’s set of them proved to be only one of 28 known versions that now exist within the government bureaucracy. In truth, no one is sure how many varieties of pseudo-classifications even exist under those multiple policies, or how many documents they cover as there are no established reporting requirements.

By law there are officially only three levels of governmental classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Other indicators, such as NOFORN and ORCON, seen for instance on some of the NSA documents Edward Snowden released, are called “handling instructions,” although they, too, function as unofficial categories of classification. Each of the three levels of official classification has its own formal definition and criteria for use. It is theoretically possible to question the level of classification of a document.  However much they may be ignored, there are standards for their declassification and various supervisors can also shift levels of classification as a final report, memo, or briefing takes shape. The system is designed, at least in theory and occasionally in practice, to have some modicum of accountability and reviewability.

The government’s post-9/11 desire to classify more and more information ran head on into the limits of classification as enacted by Congress. The response by various agencies was to invent a proliferation of designations like SSI that would sweep unclassified information under the umbrella of classification and confer on ever more unclassified information a (sort of) classified status. In the case of the TSA, the agency even admits on its own website that a document with an SSI stamp is unclassified, but prohibits its disclosure anyway.

Imagine the equivalent at home: you arbitrarily establish a classification called Spouse Sensitive Information that prohibits your partner from seeing the family bank statements. And if all this is starting to make no sense, then you can better understand the topsy-turvy world Robert MacLean found himself in.

MacLean Wins a Battle in Court

In 2013, after a long series of civil service and legal wrangles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed down a decision confirming the government’s right to retroactively classify information. This may make some sense -- if you squint hard enough from a Washington perspective. Imagine a piece of innocuous information already released that later takes on national security significance. A retroactive classification can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube, but bureaucratically speaking it would at least prevent more toothpaste from being squeezed out. The same ruling, of course, could also be misused to ensnare someone like MacLean who shared unclassified information.

The court also decided that, retrospective classification or not, MacLean was indeed entitled to protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. That act generally limits its protections to “disclosures not specifically prohibited by law,” typically held to mean unclassified material. This, the court insisted, was the category MacLean fit into and so could not be fired. The court avoided the question of whether or not someone could be fired for disclosing retroactively classified information and focused on whether a made-up category like SSI was “classified” at all.

The court affirmed that laws passed by Congress creating formal classifications like "top secret" trump regulations made up by executive branch bureaucrats. In other words, as the Constitution intended, the legislative branch makes the laws and serves as a check and balance on the executive branch. Congress says what is classified and that say-so cannot be modified via an executive branch memo. One of MacLean’s lawyers hailed the court’s decision as restoring “enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act's public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for whistleblower protection rights.”

The ruling made it clear that the TSA had fired MacLean in retaliation for a legally protected act of whistleblowing. He should have been offered his job back the next day.

Not a Happy Ending But a Sad New Beginning

No such luck. Instead, on January 27, 2014, the Department of Justice petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision. If it has its way, the next time a troublesome whistleblower emerges, the executive need only retroactively slap a non-reviewable pseudo-classification on whatever information has been revealed and fire the employee. The department is, then, asking the Supreme Court to grant the executive branch the practical power to decide whether or not a whistleblower is entitled to legal protection. The chilling effect is obvious.

In addition, the mere fact that the DOJ is seeking to bring the case via a petition is significant. Such petitions, called writs of certiorari, or certs, ask that the Supreme Court overturn a lower court's decision. Through the cert process, the court sets its own agenda. Some 10,000 certs are submitted in a typical year. Most lack merit and are quickly set aside without comment. Typically, fewer than 100 of those 10,000 are chosen to move forward for a possibly precedent-setting decision. However, only a tiny number of all the certs filed are initiated by the government; on average, just 15 in a Supreme Court term.

It’s undoubtedly a measure of the importance the Obama administration gives to preserving secrecy above all else that it has chosen to take such an aggressive stance against MacLean -- especially given the desperately low odds of success. It will be several months before we know whether the court will hear the case.

This Is War

MacLean is simply trying to get his old air marshal job back by proving he was wrongly fired for an act of whistleblowing.  For the rest of us, however, this is about much more than where MacLean goes to work.

The Obama administration’s attacks on whistleblowers are well documented. It has charged more of them -- seven -- under the Espionage Act than all past presidencies combined. In addition, it recently pressured State Department whistleblower Stephen Kim into a guilty plea (in return for a lighter sentence) by threatening him with the full force of that act. His case was even more controversial because the FBI named Fox News’s James Rosen as a co-conspirator for receiving information from Kim as part of his job as a journalist. None of this is accidental, coincidental, or haphazard.  It’s a pattern.  And it’s meant to be.  This is war.

MacLean’s case is one more battle in that war.  By taking the extraordinary step of going to the Supreme Court, the executive branch wants, by fiat, to be able to turn an unclassified but embarrassing disclosure today into a prohibited act tomorrow, and then use that to get rid of an employee. They are, in essence, putting whistleblowers in the untenable position of having to predict the future. The intent is clearly to silence them before they speak on the theory that the easiest leak to stop is the one that never happens. A frightened, cowed workforce is likely to be one result; another -- falling into the category of unintended consequences -- might be to force more potential whistleblowers to take the Manning/Snowden path.

The case against MacLean also represents an attempt to broaden executive power in another way. At the moment, only Congress can “prohibit actions under the law,” something unique to it under the Constitution. In its case against MacLean, the Justice Department seeks to establish the right of the executive and its agencies to create their own pseudo-categories of classification that can be used to prohibit actions not otherwise prohibited by law. In other words, it wants to trump Congress. Regulation made by memo would then stand above the law in prosecuting -- or effectively persecuting -- whistleblowers. A person of conscience like MacLean could be run out of his job by a memo.

In seeking to claim more power over whistleblowers, the executive also seeks to overturn another principle of law that goes by the term ex post facto. Laws are implemented on a certain day and at a certain time. Long-held practice says that one cannot be punished later for an act that was legal when it happened. Indeed, ex post facto criminal laws are expressly forbidden by the Constitution. This prohibition was written in direct response to the injustices of British rule at a time when Parliamentary laws could indeed criminalize actions retrospectively. While some leeway exists today in the U.S. for ex post facto actions in civil cases and when it comes to sex crimes against children, the issue as it affects whistleblowers brushes heavily against the Constitution and, in a broader sense, against what is right and necessary in a democracy.

When a government is of, by, and for the people, when an educated citizenry (in Thomas Jefferson’s words) is essential to a democracy, it is imperative that we all know what the government does in our name. How else can we determine how to vote, who to support, or what to oppose? Whistleblowers play a crucial role in this process. When the government willfully seeks to conceal its actions, someone is required to step up and act with courage and selflessness.

That our current government has been willing to fight for more than seven years -- maybe all the way to the Supreme Court -- to weaken legal whistleblowing protections tells a tale of our times. That it seeks to silence whistleblowers at a moment when their disclosures are just beginning to reveal the scope of our unconstitutional national security state is cause for great concern. That the government demands whistleblowers work within the system and then seeks to modify that same system to thwart them goes beyond hypocrisy.

This is the very definition of post-Constitutional America where legality and illegality blur -- and always in the government’s favor; where the founding principles of our nation only apply when, as, and if the executive sees fit. The devil is indeed in the details.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available in April.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story.

Ryan Grenoble   |   February 28, 2014   12:44 PM ET

Plenty of things can trigger a slowdown in the security line at an airport. Whoever thought the status of Washington, D.C.'s statehood would be one of them?

This, after traveler (and D.C. resident) Ashley Brandt says she was delayed at the Phoenix airport last week after presenting a TSA agent with her D.C. license to confirm her identity. As the TSA requests a "state-issued photo ID," and Washington D.C. isn't a state but a federal district, Brandt says she was subject to extra inquiry.

In a recollection of the incident to the Washington Post, Brandt says the agent looked at her ID, shook her head, and said, “I don't know if we can accept these ... Do you have a U.S. passport?"

Brandt didn't present a passport, leading the agent to call for a superior. “I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get home. Am I going to get home?'" Brandt said.

Fortunately, reports NBC Washington, the supervisor signed off on her ID and Brandt made it home on time.

In the midst of the incident, Brandt's boyfriend, who was with her at the time, tweeted, "Holy. S**t. TSA @ PHX asked for gf's passport because her valid DC license deemed invalid b/c 'DC not a state'."

The tweet went viral, prompting D.C.'s House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to author a letter to the TSA calling for "corrective action." But in all fairness to the TSA, as Mother Jones notes, the matter was cleared up pretty quickly.

In a statement to The Huffington Post, a TSA spokesperson confirmed licenses from Washington, D.C. shouldn't pose a problem at TSA checkpoints.

“A valid Washington, D.C., driver's license is an acceptable form of identification at all TSA checkpoints. When issues arise at the checkpoint, TSA officers work to make sure facts are gathered and quickly resolved to avoid future confusion.”

This story has been updated with comments from the TSA.

How to Breeze Through Airport Security

Laura Lippstone   |   February 24, 2014   11:58 AM ET

Have you had it with the airport security sprint?

You know, where you have to factor in extra time at the airport and then become a wreck, juggling driver's license, boarding pass, jacket, belt, shoes, a baggie stuffed with liquids ready to ooze all over everything. Plus unwanted wear and tear on your laptop.

Then trying not to think about potentially nasty environmental vibes emanating from that body scan thingy that -- in my mind -- can't be good for you. Not true, says the government.

Followed by a fresh tidal wave of worry over whether you've left anything behind as you're stuffing your feet back into your shoes after the screening. Trust me -- it can happen. I once lost my driver's license.

You know it's all necessary (some would debate that point), but... if only it were a little easier.

It can be.

That's what I found out a few weeks ago, when I was bracing for the usual at Philadelphia airport. I was rendered speechless after being told I could go right through, everything intact.

And no body scan; just a stroll through a metal detector, which seems to me to be a lot less dangerous.

This lasted for about a month. Then, wham. I was back to the old airport security shuffle.

Where did this perk come from, and why did it vanish so quickly?

I posed those questions to the Transportation Security Administration, the folks in charge at airports.

TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein explains.

Though I have a frequent flyer airline credit card, he said I was likely picked at random. Consequently, my airline boarding pass printed out with the words "TSA PreCheck." This was my magic ticket -- informing the TSA security folks I was eligible for the express security line.

Though Feinstein wouldn't get into specifics of how that's determined, he said key info like my name, date of birth and gender can figure in. (You generally have to include all that when you buy your ticket.)

The reason this perk was so short-lived, he said, was that it's done on a flight-to-flight basis. No guarantees.

Seems the only way to get through quicker on a more-consistent basis is to apply for the TSA PreCheck benefit. Yes, it does exist.

There are several ways of doing this, and all will cost you time and money. Depending on how much you fly, it may be worth it.

If you fly mostly in the U.S. and use certain airlines and airports, you can apply for what's called a Known Traveler Number. Depending on the airport, it may also mean expedited screening for international flights.

The program requires an online application and a visit to a TSA center, where you pay an $85 fee, show government ID and get fingerprinted.

Once you receive that number, you enter it every time you make an airline reservation. It's good for five years.

Most U. S. airport participate in the program, as do most U.S. airlines. However, some do not. They include Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit.

Feinstein says those airlines have also been invited to participate, but it's up to them to decide if they want in.

If you do a lot of international traveling, there's the Global Entry program. For $15 more, you're promised faster clearance through immigration, often through special kiosks.

Requirements are more stringent. A passport or proof of permanent U.S. residency is required. So is an interview.

There are similar programs that range in price. All require an interview and passport if you're flying between countries. (There may be exceptions for ground transportation between the U.S. and Canada.)

All memberships are good for five years. And they all include the TSA PreCheck, so you can get out and in more quickly.

While this all may sound like too much trouble, here's something to consider: If you have the PreCheck clearance and are traveling with kids 12 and under, they can use the express line too. Might be worth it right there.

A final caution: Even if you're signed up, there's still a chance you might end up in the regular security lines once in awhile due to "random" TSA security measures, says Feinstein.

Confused? Maybe this will help.

Or maybe not. Just when I thought I sort of understood the process, I was at the airport yesterday. "TSA PreCheck" showed up on my boarding pass again. Goodie. But I still had to take my laptop out of its case. Go figure.

12 Travel Pet Peeves

William D. Chalmers   |   February 20, 2014    3:59 PM ET

People like to complain. It is one of our natural predispositions. Studies may suggest that we Americans complain more than others because either: a) we don't know how lucky we really are so stop whining, or b) we feel we're entitled to something more -- you pick.

We travelers are no different. Although we may be more PC about it and a tad more tolerant of the vicissitudes of travel that are out of our control (and part of our common shared human condition), we still grumble, cap and whine about the things we really hate about traveling.

Over the years, we have conducted anonymous exit debriefings to the hundreds of travelers who have just finished participating in our annual around the world travel adventure competition The Global Scavenger Hunt, about what really bugged them traveling during their latest circumnavigation. Now I have to stipulate that these are all truly great travel-savvy folks, so the usual travel pet peeves like: loud talkers, barefoot passengers, crying babies, armrest elbowers, chatty seatmates, reclining passengers, overhead luggage hogs and TSA lines seldom appear on their forms. But after a decade of such travel events, here are the dirty dozen pet peeves from those frequent flyer travelers:

1. Experiencing travelers at airports, on flights, at hotels or restaurants who think they are "special" and the rest of the world should simply comply to their every wish. (Nobody in the world but you. Really! I think we all run into these "Don't you know who I am?" types.)

2. Being made to feel nervous and like a terrorist when we arrive home to the U.S. after a trip. (Clearly the U.S. Customs and Border Protection folks need to learn to smile more... and maybe charm school lessons wouldn't hurt.)

3. When we check into a hotel at 1:15 a.m. all bleary-eyed after a trans-continental flight, we are told that check out time is 11 a. m. (WTF? When we rent a room for a day -- give us an honest 24-hour day!)

4. Fellow guests who can't close their hotel room door without slamming it. (I think we can all agree that a little common -- and quiet -- courtesy would make the world a better place to sleep in.)

5. I hate when I spend $200+ for a hotel room in a place where the water is unsafe for anyone to drink (i.e.: West Virginia, India and China), and have no complimentary water in my room.

6. Travelers, both women and men, who wear too much perfume and cologne on a plane. (Sure it beats BO -- but not by much. Non-scent deodorant is the sure cure.)

7. Watching travelers quickly look at the digital photos (aka chimping) immediately after taking them. (Spoiler Alert: All cameras have delete options for later use.)

8. Seeing travelers use their smartphone's for local information instead of having face-to-face experiences with locals.

9. The endless blaring of those annoying security announcements at U.S. airports about not leaving your bags unattended and reporting any suspicious activities. (Really! 9/11 over a decade ago, we get it already -- it is so 1984ish.)

10. All those ATM fees for accessing my money while traveling: service fees, international ATM fees, currency conversion surcharges all on top of foreign exchange fees. (The rich get richer...)

11. Fellow travelers who expect everyone to speak English and don't even try. (Imagine for a moment that you are walking down your hometown street when someone walks up to you with a map and starts talking rapidly at you in Mandarin or Hindi or Arabic. Think about it.)

12. Stampeding passengers who after a flight lands (sometimes barely at that) subscribe to the standard hurry-up-and-wait motto by trying to be the first off. (Relax folks, it took a while to load, it will take a while to unload too!)

What are your travel pet peeves? Please no baby-bashing -- we were all kids once, right?

TSA Agent Accused Of Stealing $8,500 From Checked Luggage

Kim Bellware   |   January 31, 2014   12:06 PM ET

The TSA is trying to fire an agent in Chicago after police say he stole $8,500 from a woman's checked luggage.

Angel Velazquez, 56, is facing felony theft charges after he was arrested Tuesday, ABC Chicago reports.

Prosecutors said the 11-year veteran of the agency was caught on surveillance video going through the suitcase of a 48-year-old passenger flying out of Chicago's O'Hare International last November, according to DNAinfo.

Police say the woman put the cash in her suitcase and checked the bag for a flight on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines only to arrive to her destination and find the money missing, DNAinfo reports. Velazquez allegedly hit the cash in a garbage can before returning to collect it and put it in his backpack.

It was unclear why police did not make the arrest sooner.

Velazquez's arrest comes after the Government Accountability Office issued a report last summer indicating TSA misconduct was up 26 percent in the past three years.

Velazquez's arrest makes for a total of three TSA agents to be arrested this January nationwide. A TSA supervisor in Charlotte, N.C. was fired after being charged with misdemeanor larceny in connection to a stolen iPad while an agent in Nashville was arrested after he was allegedly found passed out drunk in a running vehicle.

  |   January 29, 2014   11:17 AM ET

Alec Baldwin has a new victim of his ever–evolving aggression: the TSA.

The "30 Rock" star recently traveled to Paradise Island in the Bahamas with his wife, Hilaria, and their 5–month–old daughter. What appeared to be a lovely vacation apparently had a rough ending as the family headed back to the States. Baldwin complained that airport security had inappropriately searched his daughter.


The idea that the TSA would search a baby is absurd, and Baldwin may have had a leg to stand on … if he'd gotten his facts straight.

NBC news spoke with a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security to see if Baldwin's complaints were valid. The official pointed out that Baldwin was complaining about security in the Nassau, Bahamas airport which is under the security jurisdiction of the Bahamas, not the U.S. Thus, his angry hashtag, "#travelinginUSisadisgrace," holds little merit.

The official elaborated on U.S. policy, stating that the TSA does not pat down children under the age of 12.

This response doesn't diminish the absurdity of Baldwin's situation, but it certainly appears as though he's targeted the wrong perpetrator. The famous father followed up on the situation on Twitter after receiving a wave of corrections both from followers and the media.

The LA Times reports that Baldwin had commented on Twitter earlier this week to defend his case against the TSA, but he has since removed the tweets. He had written that it didn't matter where the offense occurred, he just wanted it acknowledged. Though that message may have been diminished by a subsequently deleted tweet which supposedly read: "I guess what I'm saying is: Traveling in the US is a pain in the ... ass."

Poor, poor Alec Baldwin. No one ever lets him be furious in peace.

This Is What Happens When You Come Home To America And Your Name Is Ahmed

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin   |   January 28, 2014    5:20 PM ET

It's not easy coming back home to America when your name is Ahmed. 

I want to look forward to returning home from a trip abroad, but thanks to my name or as the TSA officer put it -- my "profile" -- I've come to dread it. 

The last four times I've traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival.  It's as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, "blessed," each time I land at JFK airport, I can't help but feel somewhat cursed.

On Sunday night, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, I was detained for two hours upon arrival. In October, I was held for almost four, returning home after a 14-hour trip to Turkey where I moderated a UN conference on peace in the Middle East. For what it's worth, I breezed through security in Istanbul.

In Davos -- where I interviewed some of the world's wealthiest, most powerful and highest-profile people --  the running joke among our production team, and many of the other participants was how unusually friendly and hospitable the thousands of police officers, special forces, and security guards were. My team passed through security checkpoint after checkpoint at each of the various venues with respect and dignity.
 
Why then, you might be wondering, am I detained every time I set foot on U.S. soil? As it is always abstractly and bluntly explained to me: My "name" and "my profile" are simply a "match."

Like all Americans (and every human being for that matter), I want to be safe. But I can't help but question the efficacy of our national security policy, including the practice of detaining U.S. citizens because something (never specifically explained) about a name or person's identity is said to match that of someone somewhere in the world who is deemed to pose a threat to America. How close is the match? What aspects of one's "profile" are searched for a match? None of that is ever explained.

The first time it happened, I asked the Department of Homeland Security officer for specifics. But all he told me was "there is somebody out there who was involved in an incident and your profile... is a match." He would end our 10-minute conversation by discouragingly adding, "This is likely to keep happening." And It has.

Just one month later, the second time I was detained, I was returning from a four-day trip to Kuwait to see my family during Thanksgiving. I was especially excited to see my 91-year-old grandmother, whom I hadn't seen since I last visited Kuwait to both bury and celebrate the life of my 93-year-old grandfather (who is also my namesake -- as is often the case in the Arab world, I was named after him).

It is already nerve-wracking enough to head straight to JFK after work, traveling 12 hours to Kuwait, only to travel back 96 hours later and head straight back to work. But seeing her, for me, made the trip worth it. But to the DHS officer, it was "highly suspicious".

This time the whole process took 3 hours.

“Why did you fly to Kuwait and back for just 3 days?” she asked me.

I explained that other people at work had taken time off to spend Thanksgiving with their families – I had to get back for work. I also told her I was a journalist.

"So, then you should know why this is suspicious,” she answered.

She went on to ask a few other questions that a basic Google search would quickly reveal the answers to in the summaries of the first page of results.

At the end of our back-and-forth, I asked her how I might get off this weird DHS list.  She said I could write to Homeland Security, they would review it, and send me a redress number. So I did that.  Months later, I have still yet to hear back. This third recent time, I went to Lebanon to spend New Years with friends.

As it would turn out, in the eight days I was there, two car bombs exploded, killing nearly a dozen people including the former Ambassador to the U.S.In fact, on the day I boarded my flight back from Beirut, the U.S. had issued a travel advisory warning citizens against travel to Lebanon.

When I got to the security line this time, the so-called threat I posed was communicated as clearly as it ever had. I placed my passport into the new automated immigration machines and it spit out a document with a big X over my face. I was swiftly ushered into another customs line. The officer reluctantly highlighted my boarding pass, seemed empathetic to my story and walked me to the second clearance room where a woman in line in front of me was wearing a beautiful green Shalwar Kameez that dragged on the floor behind her.

At the door, an Egyptian-American woman greeted me, "Al Salaam Aleykum," she said. I reluctantly responded "Wa Aleykum Al Salam," though I was hardly feeling at peace.  The room was filled with rows of seats and several DHS officers with colorful folders (red, yellow, green, blue) lined up in front of them with passports and travel documents. The juxtaposition of the colorful folders with the rows of mostly brown people filling the seats was suspect in itself.

"Omar Mubarak... Juan Diaz... Sayed Hussain," the officers called us one by one.

I couldn't help but feel as though JFK itself was a bit racist. 

After a 14-hour trip, I wanted to stretch my legs. So I stood up, anxious to find myself back in the room, especially after having written to the DHS. "Take a seat," the officer at the door sternly said to me. I told him I wanted to stretch my legs after the long flight. He told me I wasn't allowed to stand up. You are also not allowed to use your phone or electronic equipment. I was also slightly surprised to find as many children in the room as there were cameras. 

"Sir, I'm a U.S. citizen who wants to stand while being detained. Am I not allowed to stand?" I said, pointing to the Asian man and Pakistani woman standing with their toddler strapped to the man's chest. Anyway, there were only two empty seats in the room with a capacity of 60.

"Sit down!" he repeated for the sixth time, and came and confiscated my phone, which I was using to try to text my coworkers who were waiting to share a car home.

I looked around, unsure as to whether I should seek solace or serious concern in the fact that I was certainly not alone. I wondered if being asked to step aside was really making anyone of us safer. According to this piece written by Rifat Malik, whose husband also had his passport withheld for further "security checks," it's not. Like mine, "His name is similar to one on an American terrorist watch list."

As Malik points out, "in the early years post 9/11, immigration officials used to pretend these anti-terrorism checks were random." In fact in 2005, 30,000 airline passengers discovered they were mistakenly placed on federal "Terrorist" watch lists, Jim Kennedy, director of the Transportation Security Administration's redress office revealed. I was frustrated, but did not pity myself, though I found the fact that so many children were in the room with me to be pitiful. 

Even if one applies the better-safe-than-sorry mentality, it doesn't justify the fact that Najila Hicks' 8-year-old son Mikey found himself on the list. That, one would imagine would be easy to correct, but as she told the New York Times,"it should not take seven years to correct the problem."  

Thirteen years ago, 19 men armed with knives hijacked four airplanes and within a few hours killed almost 3,000 people. Since then, the U.S. has spent more than 7.6 trillion on the military and homeland security. The government claims that the NSA surveillance program and FBI wiretapping has thwarted terrorist attacks and helped foiled plots even as these claims have been repeatedly challenged. 

The U.S. has spent trillions expanding its massive national security state. The Department of Homeland Security has morphed into a monster conglomeration of agencies that serves as a its own defense department. Whether drone wars, surveillance programs, kill lists, or prosecuting investigative journalism, our government's approach to counter-terrorism has undermined the long-standing American principle of "innocent until proven guilty." The efficacy of the new doctrine is as neglected as the need for accountability and transparency in order to preserve and grow our democracy. A thorough review of ineffective U.S. counter-terrorism and immigration policies is long overdue.
 
Anyone can find themselves on "the list." Children, elderly people and even the late Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts found himself on the list in 2004. But unlike Senator Kennedy, I couldn't enlist the help of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to help me get off it.

Just today, Alec Baldwin's 5-month-old daughter was "randomly selected." He tweeted about his own experience, adding the hashtag #travelinginUSisadisgrace

In the last five years, The Transportation Security Administration spent about $900 million for behavior detection officers to identify high-risk passengers, but, as of today, only 0.59 percent of those flagged were arrested and zero were charged with terrorism, according to the General Accountability Office.
 
There is, at least for me, some irony in the fact that The Department Of Homeland Security is detaining me from getting home when I land.
 
Having had the good fortune of growing up moving from city to city (including Cairo, Kuwait, Vienna, and Berkeley) I've always struggled to identify with the concept of home. But that's why I love living in New York. It's easy to feel at home here in the big apple, which is why that big X mark on my face is all the more demoralizing.
 
If there is anything I learned at the World Economic Forum, it is that there is a crisis in leadership in the world. After interviewing more than 65 global leaders, I was reminded that for better or worse, we live in a globalized world. So whether it comes to tackling youth unemployment, income inequality, or climate change -- we must work together to promote tolerance, and encourage a candid conversation that interrogates both our own polices and practices and those of other governments and corporations. We must hold each other and ourselves to account for this world we all share.
 
It's time we fix the bureaucracy of the DHS to ensure people who aren't threats (and if I may add are rather passionate advocates of peace and tolerance) are able to return back home without detainment and interrogation.
 
At the very least, I am somewhat encouraged the TSA has a program to allow me to remove my name from the watch list, but as Mikey's case proves, it is problematic to say the least. After being detained on December 1, the officer told me my name had been taken off the list. But yesterday when I found myself in the same room the officer explained that apparently "some incident happened between December 1 and today that has put you back on it".
  
Around the world, the threat of terrorism is as real as ever. But through my work and personal experiences and those of my friends, I'm convinced the system is broken. I know all too well, the prejudices that come with growing up Arab or Muslim in America post 9/11 and the polarization that can have on society. But if we let prejudice and racism win, we will have lost to the extremists -- both here and there. 

  |   January 25, 2014    2:05 PM ET

On Friday, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released its Blog Year In Review for 2013. The annual review is a veritable gold mine of the bizarre things people have tried to bring on airplanes in the United States over the past year.

Some of this stuff has to be seen to be believed.

First off, the TSA found 1,813 firearms in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints last year. That's about five a day, and represents a 16.5 percent increase from the year before.

Of those 1,813 guns found in 2013, 81 percent were loaded. The most guns were found at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with Dallas/Fort Worth International coming in second place.

Here are some of the handguns the TSA found last year:
guns

Other items found in travelers' carry-on bags in 2013 included 562 stun guns, black powder, inert demolition explosives, smoke grenades, flashbang grenades and flare guns.

Oh, and also, this mace, which was found in a carry-on at Chicago's Midway International (no that's not plastic -- that's actual wood and metal):
mace

Airport officers with TSA also found some interesting items in travelers' checked bags, including a World War II-era bazooka (luckily it wasn't a functioning weapon) and this rather realistic-looking suicide vest, which ended up being fake and belonging to an explosives instructor:
vest

In a checked bag at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, officers found one of the strangest things of the year: human skull remains. The bone fragments were found in some clay pots in checked baggage, whose owners said they had "no idea" the skull pieces were in there.
skull

Lastly, TSA agents found lots of walking canes with concealed swords inside them ...

cane swords

... and combs containing hidden daggers:

combs

So the next time you get annoyed with the long lines at an airport checkpoint, remember: Those agents are there for a reason.

(hat tip Business Insider)

TAMI ABDOLLAH   |   January 22, 2014    2:27 AM ET

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Minutes before a gunman opened fire in a Los Angeles International Airport terminal last fall, killing a security screener and wounding three other people, the two armed officers assigned to the area left for breaks without informing a dispatcher as required.

The Los Angeles Airport Police Department officers were outside Terminal 3 when authorities say Paul Ciancia opened fire with an assault rifle in an attack targeting Transportation Security Administration officers, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press. The officials requested anonymity, saying they were briefed on the shooting but were not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.

Andrea Rael   |   January 8, 2014    5:52 PM ET

From Jan. 1st to Dec. 26th in 2013, the TSA saw a 20 percent increase from the previous year in the amount of guns it confiscated in the U.S. from passengers trying to smuggle them into their carry-ons.

In 2013, a total of 1,828 guns -- the highest amount recorded since the TSA began tracking smuggled firearms -- were confiscated across the nation's airports, according to a recently released analysis of TSA data by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative.

The increase in seized handguns is the third and largest annual jump since 2010.

While it's legal for travelers to transport unloaded firearms as checked baggage, it is illegal to carry a handgun aboard a commercial airliner. The TSA has to notify local authorities when a gun is discovered at security checkpoints, who determine whether to make an arrest, issue a ticket or take other action.

Of the guns seized, 84 percent were loaded and one in three of those guns already had a bullet in the chamber, prepared to fire.

In first days of 2014, the TSA already confiscated at least 27 guns, 21 of which were loaded and five had rounds chambered.

Here are the top 10 airports with the most gun confiscations last year:

Raising the Minimum Wage "Pays for" Extended Unemployment Insurance

Paul Abrams   |   January 4, 2014    5:27 PM ET

When the sequester first bit, Members of Congress suddenly realized that they, along with the rest of us poor sots, would be standing on long airport lines due to reduced funding for sufficient numbers of TSA inspectors.

What happened? What do you think happened? Faster than one can say "Rand Paul," money to maintain the TSA workforce magically appeared, Members of Congress did not have to wait in long lines and the right-wing returned immediately to trashing federal expenditures for the rest of us.

Where, pray tell, did all this money come from? It was "taken" from long-term projected spending on airport improvement and other accounts, threatening our long-term competitiveness (unless Congress misleads itself again and restores the construction money), while enabling Members of Congress to flit back-and-forth across the country to achieve nothing on behalf of the American people.

Overall, not a very good investment.

What if we used that same creativity to pay for a good investment, assistance for those unlikely to benefit from shorter airport security lines -- the unemployed? We can do this without raising taxes and without stealing from future airport construction and actually achieve something -- 0.4 percent better GDP, and more than 200,000 jobs according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Today, the working poor (those who work 40 hour weeks but do not make sufficient income to support their families) receive $3-7 Billion in federal assistance. The real number is probably higher than that, but the savings from raising the minimum wage is not likely to be 100 percent. So, let us call it $5 Billion.

If we save $5 Billion from raising the minimum wage, in 5 years those savings alone pay for a one-year extension. Indeed, we can do it for two years and have no negative impact on our 10-year debt projections.

Moreover, with the improvement in GDP that the improved purchasing power of the newly minimum-waged produces, and the growth of jobs reducing the numbers of unemployed, the impact of this "trade-off" is a net positive with respect to ratio of debt to GDP, a far more important measure of the country's financial status than either GDP or debt alone.

Overall, a damned good investment.