December 4, 2013
By Elizabeth A Tennyson
After waiting more than a month for answers to their questions about numerous stops and searches of law-abiding pilots on domestic general aviation flights, members of the Senate GA Caucus have sent a new demand for information to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) sent a follow-up letter to DHS Acting Secretary Rand Beers on Dec. 3. The letter sets a Dec. 16 deadline for DHS, the parent agency for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to provide records of all CBP stops of general aviation flights since 2009, including explanations of the “reasonable suspicion” that led to each stop and the “probable cause” that resulted in a search.
The missive follows an Oct. 30 letter requesting the same information no later than Nov. 15. That letter, which was also spearheaded by Roberts and Risch and was signed by six other members of the Senate GA Caucus, received no formal response from DHS.
“You simply cannot ignore United States senators,” said AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead. “When a government agency appears to be acting outside of its mandate and jeopardizing the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, as DHS and CBP appear to be, elected officials have the right to answers, as do we all. We are pleased that Senators Roberts and Risch are continuing to pursue this issue.”
The follow-up letter notes that unwarranted stops and searches are continuing in the face of public outcry.
“Despite serious concerns raised with your department in recent weeks from both the aviation industry and members of Congress, your agents seem undeterred in stopping GA aircraft where no illegal conduct is afoot,” the letter states. “It is unsettling that additional incidents are taking place while we wait on a response from your office.”
The letter is just the latest salvo in a series of efforts to hold DHS and CBP accountable for their actions. AOPA has spent months attempting to get to the bottom of more than 40 reports of stops and searches by CBP or local law enforcement acting at the agency’s request. In each case CBP, which is charged with border security, stopped flights that never left the United States. Pilots report that several of the stops involved drawn weapons and the use of dogs, but in no case did CBP find evidence of criminal activity.
AOPA has filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in an attempt to determine under what authority the CBP is stopping purely domestic flights. The association brought the issue to the attention of lawmakers after its requests were ignored or received inadequate responses.
In September, AOPA member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), co-chair of the House GA Caucus, asked for an Inspector General investigation into the incidents. Later that month, two notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) indicated that CBP wanted to change the status of some of its records, including those related to the stops, to make them secret and unavailable for public scrutiny. The timing of the request and the short period allowed for public comment raised alarm bells.
AOPA asked for an extension to the comment period to give Congress time to complete its investigation, but that request was ignored. It took DHS more than a month to respond to other AOPA questions about the NPRMs, including why CBP chose this time to make its Air and Marine Operations Surveillance System records secret when the system has existed since 1988. That response was vague, citing national security and law enforcement concerns as the reasons for secrecy.
AOPA Senior Director of Communications Elizabeth Tennyson is an instrument-rated private pilot who first joined AOPA in 1998.
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