Annals of the Security State: Hypotheses

Why not call it 'spatial profiling'?
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Thumbnail image for 130523searches.jpgI'm going to wait a little while before putting up more first-hand accounts from people who have been subjected to stop-and-frisk in the skies. In a sense -- perhaps like normal stop-and-frisk -- the stories are all the same. In the aviation cases, pilots who have carefully followed all known rules:

  • find themselves surrounded by armed DHS/FBI/DEA/local-police forces when they land at out-of-the-way airports;
  • are detained for between two and four hours while dog-equipped teams inspect all their luggage and every part of the plane;
  • in many of the cases I've recounted the pilots are taken from the plane at gunpoint, as in the photo; and
  • eventually they're let go. The troops are looking for drugs, or terrorists, or something else, but whatever they have in mind, they haven't found it on these planes.
For now, a few attempts at interpretation. Yes, before you ask, I have queries out to my contacts at the DHS and the FAA. Here we go, starting with a short theory from a reader:
The worst thing is, like the person who complained about the Google SMS search decision, people feel like there is nothing we can do about the loss of liberties" "I know this is a useless cry into the void."
 
But what upsets me most, personally, is when I hear of these "wars" and recall Ronald Reagan's famous statement "We declared war on poverty, and poverty won."
 
How come the poverty war gets to end, but the wars on terror and drugs are interminable?
A longer and more intricate speculation, from someone who is head of a software company:
I wonder if, in your Annals Of The Security State, you've stumbled into someone's intelligence operation.  Here's what strikes me:

a) We have a series of remarkably similar incidents in which private pilots are suspected of smuggling something -- drugs, money, or people.

b) None of the people involved seem very likely to actually be drug smugglers.  Indeed, they're all the sort of people whom police agencies tend to work hard to avoid annoying, because they're often in a position to return the favor through influential friends or through their attorneys.

c) None of the people involved, however, are celebrities, and none of the planes are corporate. In other words, none of the planes carried someone whose brief detention would in itself be news.  That might be notable because the rich and famous are overrepresented in the ranks of private aviation. 

d) These detentions were costly and inconvenient to law enforcement agencies. You've got representatives of three agencies, a couple of airport managers, and local police tied up for hours. At the end of the day, you've got an angry pilot and no evidence. Someone has a lot of grousing during the long drive home.

e) In the most recent report, either FlightAware was wrong, or your correspondent lied to you about something you could very likely check and which your readers at the FAA certainly could check. And, if he was lying, he's called attention to his own criminal act for which he'd otherwise escaped scrutiny.

These incidents appear at first to resemble TSA nuisances, but I expect something else is happening. Specifically, someone is mounting a disinformation campaign against an inter-agency task force that has something to do with high-value air shipments by private plane from Mexico to the US.

In the 1960s, to do this you'd either suborn someone on the task force or you'd plant a mole. Either way, you'd need someone who could add false data to the files or apply legitimate clues to innocuous subjects. You'd need Kim Philby. And that might be the case here.

Alternatively, this might be electronic cat and mouse. Team A is mining databases, looking for suspicious people and suspicious planes.  Team B is quietly planting clues and, perhaps, swapping FlightAware records, in order (1) to protect actual flights, and (2) to lead Team A's superiors to doubt their reliability. You want to swap, not delete, the records because, as you note, airplanes leave lots of evidence (gas receipts, ATC contacts) and the systems are built to notice missing planes. You want to avoid celebrities because, if you surround Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian or the treasurer of a Fortune 500 Company or someone running for the Texas Railroad Commission with guns and blue lights, people are going to look very carefully at the source of the disinformation.

The pattern of trumped-up searches is especially disturbing.  I wonder how common this is?  I think this may be an important question for rule of law -- much like your false equivalence series:  if people assume that the 4th amendment is a dead letter and that police routinely plant or fake evidence, they simply aren't going to trust the law.

From someone who is both a pilot and member of the judiciary:
Just read your recent stories re this. Of course, I'm horrified, but, honestly, I'm a little surprised it took so long for this to start happening. It seemed to me at the time that 9/11 allowed non-pilots to be aware that a VFR flight can take place with no notice or permission, and even my worldly friends were aghast at this idea.  During the weeks after 9/11, I was sure that those freedoms would never be restored to us, and I was profoundly moved when they were....

I have also sensed that, once having had the chance to restrict uncontrolled flight slip through their grasp, those who were suspicious of GA [general aviation] would seize any opportunity to begin squeezing it off.  Only making sure that these extra-legal violations of the rights and privileges of aviation are done in the sunlight can prevent this, and I thank you for writing about these terrifying events.

(I realize I am sounding just like my friends and acquaintances who believe the current administration has a grand plan for disarming the public and who are buying up all the ammunition and rifles in sight, and I don't know how to resolve that contradiction in my belief system.)

From someone who sees a connective theme:
I've been surprised not yet to see someone pointing out the common thread in the plane stops--that everyone's flying from California--and linking that to what you routinely see on the roads in the midwest.

My brother drives to see our parents in Iowa from California once every couple of years with his wife. On two different recent trips, he was stopped for no reason by the highway patrol, once in Nebraska, for failing to signal a lane change with enough notice, and once in Iowa for a "broken taillight" (which was not broken). In Nebraska, he and his wife were questioned separately and at length. In Iowa, the patrol backed off when my brother expressed indignation and recorded a badge number. Both my brother and his wife are blond, white schoolteachers.

On the last trip, after the Iowa stop, my siblings and father and I were at a Boy Scout camp for my nephew's family night, and happened to run into an old acquaintance who is now a police officer. We told him about the stops, and he just nodded and said, "yeah, about 90% of the California plates you see here are running drugs."

Maybe Jerry Brown can do something about the continuing and expanding criminalization of California?
Not just California but also Colorado:
I wonder if the federal authorities' enthusiasm for stopping and searching eastbound private planes from California to the east coast could be related to a story NPR's Planet Money team reported recently entitle "marijuana arbitrage." 

The gist of the story is, legalization (or medicalization) of marijuana in California has pushed down the prices for the product there, although the prices remain high in the east where the traditional legal environment still reigns.  Growers and sellers see the money to be made by buying cheap in the west and selling dear in the east and just need to find a way to get their product from source to customer.  If private planes are a primary vehicle, and the feds are onto that, it could explain the over-the-top response given to pilots originating in the west and landing in the east.
 
Really, did we  learn NOTHING from Prohibition?
And a new Colorado/California-inclusive name for what we are seeing:
Why not call it "spacial profiling"? Any flight heading east from the apparently drug-soaked western states seems to be vulnerable only because of its origin and destination.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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