Mikey Doesn’t Like It. Neither Do I.

A basic point: if the Transportation Security Administration is permitted by the executive branch to “mythbust” on its web pages, it should be instructed to fully and accurately respond to public confirmations that the putatively busted myths are in fact not busted at all.

Companies can get away with peddling public-relations crap on their front pages, though I think they too can and increasingly do pay a price for that kind of behavior. A government agency shouldn’t be allowed to.

The TSA’s “mythbusting” on children and the no-fly list has two ugly weasel-wording escape hatches built into it. Any problems, it implies, are the fault of the airlines, so blame them. And the no-fly list isn’t the same as the watch list, which they know full well.

There have been numerous reported episodes over the last seven years of children and babies being patted down, questioned, or otherwise subjected to strenuous screening because they have the same name as someone on the watch list. The case reported by the Times is just the latest.

I’m in the camp of people who think most of what the TSA does is meaningless “security theater” that can and has slowly eroded our autonomy as human beings. Leave that larger debate aside for a moment. A different kind of point arises in this case: if a government agency is going to engage the public through its web site, and questions about the accuracy or truthfulness of what it says to the public arise, it should never be permissible to refuse to respond directly to questions. If the New York Times is running a front-page story about a specific case that demonstrates that what the agency says is a weasel-worded evasion at best, there should be a standing directive that comes straight from the office of the Presidency that an agency is required to respond in specific terms to the specific question.

Transparency is not just about giving up documents or materials with glum reluctance when forced to do so, or piling vague weasel words on top of existing weasel words. It’s an active ethos that should be as high a priority at all times as the specific business of any agency. That’s especially the case when it’s an agency which has been granted increasingly strong capacities to preemptively suspect and intrusively interfere with its own citizens and the world in general.

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