The Brancatelli File



October 16 , 2003 -- I hold this truth to be self-evident: It is none of the government's business where I fly.

In the debate over CAPPS II--the government's incredibly offensive desire to profile every American before they are allowed to step on an airplane--that simple, self-evident truth seems to have been overlooked. But, in fact, it must be the foundation of every effort to derail CAPPS II.

I am an American citizen. It is my God-given right to travel in this country without interference from the government. I have not and will not grant the government the right to profile me as I travel from one place to another in this country. I have not and will never grant the government the right to decide, based solely on random statistics and irrelevant data, whether I am permitted to fly. And neither should you.

CAPPS II is wrong. It is, I believe, unconstitutional. It is a fundamental violation of the covenant between we, the people, and the governments we hire to manage the country in our name.

In my opinion, there can be no compromises, no acceptable format in which CAPPS II can be implemented. There is no palatable version of CAPPS II that can balance the inalienable rights of the U.S. people and the absurd demands of a government that seems to have forgotten that we, not it, are endowed by the Creator.

CAPPS II must be stopped because there is no conceivable way that this nation can allow this government--any government--to gather information on American citizens before they exercise their constitutional right to travel within the United States.

As the difficult months since the 9/11 terrorist attacks have dragged on, we have traded away many rights and much convenience in our legitimate desire to be safe in the air. And the debate over CAPPS II has flared around a number of interesting--but essentially subsidiary--issues. People have argued over Delta Air Lines' supposed collaboration with an early test version of CAPPS II. We were appalled when we learned that JetBlue Airways gave away passen-ger information in violation of its own privacy policy. There have been weighty discourses over database management, information retention and all the minutia of day-to-day implementation of CAPPS II.

Simply put, that is all beside the point. CAPPS II is wrong because it violates our rights as Americans to travel without undue government intervention or knowledge. Period. End of discussion.

Wrongheaded as it is, I'd like to present the Bush Administration's defense of CAPPS II. But I can't. The CAPPS II "fact sheet" on the Transportation Security Administration's Web site is devoid of facts. A creation of the heinous Patriot Act, CAPPS II (the acronym stands for Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening) has been plotted and planned in secret. We know almost nothing about how it will work, why it will work, what it proposes to do or even when it might be implemented.

All we know is that CAPPS II permits the government to gather travel and personal information about you, create a profile, then decide whether you will be permitted to board a flight based solely on that profile. All we know is that every passenger attempting to board any flight will be tracked and profiled by the government. No one will be exempt and, as far as we know, anyone will be subject to denied boarding for any reason at any time that it appeals to the government.

This is self-evidently wrong. And, more to the point, the government has absolutely no constitutional or natural right to do any of these things.

Is it the government's job to make planes safe from terrorists or just plain old whackos? Absolutely. That is why we have empowered the government to shake us down physically before we board a flight. You can view the two-year history of this column since 9/11 and see that I have supported the TSA's right to control airport security and to pat us down to its bureaucratic heart's content before we fly.

I support the TSA's pre-flight weapons searches even now that I have shed my belt, switched to a plastic watch, removed my shoes and, last week, was pulled aside for an up close and personal wanding because the TSA security screener believed there was something potentially dangerous about the metal zipper on my slacks. There I was, beltless, shoeless, wearing a plastic watch, as a TSA agent repeatedly ran his wand up and down my crotch in full view of literally hundreds of other passengers trying to board their flights.

And, frankly, that was okay. I willingly submit to a body and property search before I board a flight. It's important to know that people boarding flights in this country are not carrying weapons of mass or individual destruction.

But that is where the government's right ends. The government does not have the right to know the opinions or financial status of the people boarding a flight. The government does not have the right to track my movements and profile my life--my credit rating, my bank accounts, my journalism archive and, for all I know, a bad-conduct report I received from Sister Eileen Marie at St. Edmund's Elementary School in 1967--just because I am trying to fly from one place to another in my own country.

There is a difference between the government pro-actively checking my crotch for explosives before I board a flight and the government using CAPPS II to decide whether my opinions or my American Express card balance make me unfit to travel in my own country. A bad credit rating never blew up a plane. An unpopular opinion never flew a plane into a building. A nun who didn't like me making a joke in the back of an eighth-grade classroom is not an indicator of whether I am going to hijack a commercial aircraft.

If I'm attempting to board a flight carrying a knife or a bomb or anything the government reasonably decides is dangerous, I expect to be arrested. But what I think or what I've written or what I might have done in elementary school and my current relationship with my MasterCard is none of the government's damned business.

That, I believe, is the self-evident truth. And that is why CAPPS II must be stopped.

I think the Patriot Act that created CAPPS II eventually will be viewed in the same shameful light as the Alien and Sedition Laws and McCarthyism. But we need to act now, before the Transportation Security Administration goes any further.

For starters, contact your airline and demand that it resist any attempt by the TSA to coerce cooperation in CAPPS II tests. Let your carrier know that you'll book another airline if it chooses to volunteer for CAPPS II tests. It might also help to bombard the airline industry's trade group, the Air Transport Association, with your objections. The TSA has recently hinted that airlines could collaborate with CAPPS II en masse and in secret via the trade group.

It might help to inundate the TSA with complaints. The TSA's self-appointed Minster of Information, James M. Loy, recently demanded that the airlines "stand up and be counted" in support of CAPPS II. Let him know that you oppose CAPPS II and that you'll stand up for your rights to travel freely and without government interference.

Then contact your Congressional representatives. Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle and of all political stripes are beginning to realize how un-American CAPPS II really is. You could also write to the Bush Administration to complain, but they are the people who wrote the Patriot Act (and who outted a CIA operative as part of a political vendetta), so I consider them the enemy of our constitutional rights until proven otherwise.

Finally, surf to Bill Scannell's extraordinary site, Don't Spy on Us. Scannell has been waging a brilliant, one-man campaign against CAPPS II for months. He deserves your intellectual, emotional and financial support.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.