Dear Secretary Napolitano,
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter to you. I am an American citizen who has lived and worked overseas for the last eight years. My wife and I teach for American international schools. During our annual summer break we look forward to flying back to the United States to visit family and friends. However, this year thoughts of our return are filled with some anxiety about what we may face at the airport in Washington, D.C.
Recently, I was disheartened to hear the recorded interrogation of Steve Bierfeldt by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at the St. Louis airport. The TSA officers’ actions were unconstitutional and indefensible. Under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution all Americans have a right to be secure in their person, house, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures from the government. Unfortunately, the detention, interrogation, and search of Mr. Bierfeldt’s bag violated his 4th Amendment right.
By the time they detained him it had already been ascertained by TSA officers at the checkpoint that he did not possess anything that was illegal to take on an airplane. Additionally, he had not broken and was not suspected of breaking any law. During his detention, a background check run by officers indicated he had no previous criminal record. Thus, there was no probable cause to hold him. But, according to the TSA officers, they detained, questioned, and searched his bag because a large amount of cash and bank checks found in a box in his luggage made him “suspicious.” They first accused him of being a drug dealer and then of stealing the money. They threatened to turn him over to the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Again, all because he possessed something that he had a legal right to possess but that in the eyes of the TSA officers made him look “suspicious.”
The most egregious aspect of his detention was the utter lack of respect of the TSA officers for Mr. Bierfeldt’s rights as an American citizen under the Constitution. They questioned him about his work, his employer, the money, and even why he was in St. Louis. The interrogation was reminiscent of another society in an earlier time and should not have taken place in 21st-century America. Under the circumstances, and aware of his constitutional rights, Mr. Bierfeldt certainly knew that he didn’t have to answer their questions. In fact, by answering many of their questions with “Am I legally required to answer that question?” he gave them plenty of opportunity to consider whether or not he was legally required to answer their questions. Instead, they told him, “It is not a question of the law" … "You don’t have to understand the law, just answer the question"… and "Are you from this planet?” Their absolute disregard for guaranteeing their captive’s rights was scary.
I understand that the TSA has launched an investigation of the incident. I do expect that the inquiry will be conducted in the spirit of the agency’s civil rights policy which emphasizes that the TSA has “no tolerance for harassment in the treatment of the public we serve.” When it is determined from listening to the recording that the TSA officers harassed and violated the constitutional rights of Mr. Bierfeldt I expect as an American citizen that they will be relieved of their duties. Furthermore, Madam Secretary, please ensure that all of your agents are familiar with the Bill of Rights and the protections against abusive government power that they guarantee to every American. After all, the mission of the TSA is “to make all modes of transportation safe.” We should expect to travel safely on airplanes as well as have our constitutional rights safeguarded in doing so. Ironically, given Mr. Bierfeldt’s recent experience, when I fly in June it will not be the terrorists I fear but the ones sworn to protect us from them.