Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a member of the General Aviation Caucus, has objected to moving forward with a Finance Committee vote on the nomination of R. Gil Kerlikowske to head Customs and Border Protection. While the committee chairman could still hold a vote, that would be an unusual move in the face of an objection from a committee member. The committee must approve the nomination before it is moved to the Senate floor for confirmation.
Roberts raised the objection after repeated requests for written information from CBP regarding the warrantless stops and searches of general aviation aircraft on domestic flights went unanswered. Roberts, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and six other senators, all members of the GA Caucus, first sent a letter dated Oct. 30, 2013, raising concerns that the stops are a violation of pilots’ Fourth Amendment rights. They also demanded that the Department of Homeland Security provide records of all CBP stops of GA flights since 2009, including explanations of the “reasonable suspicion” that led to each stop and the “probable cause” that resulted in a search. Those records, the letter insisted, should be made available no later than Nov. 15.
When the deadline passed without response, Roberts and Risch went back to CBP's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to insist that the agency provide the requested information. That letter to DHS Acting Secretary Rand Beers came with a Dec. 16 deadline.
“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 Dec. 3, 2013, letter to DHS stated. “It is unsettling that additional incidents are taking place while we wait on a response from your office.”
The senators have not received the requested information and new incidents of stops and searches continue to be reported.
As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Roberts had the opportunity to directly question Kerlikowske for the record. Roberts asked that Kerlikowske work with him to resolve this issue and requested a formal, written response to his previous inquiry. Kerlikowske responded: “If confirmed, I will ensure that CBP provides a response to your inquiry.”
Roberts’ objection to moving the nomination forward indicates that he is tired of waiting and wants an answer before the next CBP commissioner is put in place.
“We are pleased that Senator Roberts is taking this issue so seriously and bringing it to the forefront in the nomination process,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “General aviation pilots deserve the same constitutional protections as other law-abiding citizens, and our elected officials deserve answers.”
AOPA sought the help of Congress on this issue after working for months to get to the bottom of nearly 50 reports of stops and searches by CBP, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, 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.