Montana’s Conrad Burns tells a sad, but revealing story about government bureaucrats and their rules. Shortly after the Transportation Security Administration assumed control of airport security and Burns was still serving in Congress he was at Washington’s National Airport for a flight home. National is the airport used almost exclusively by members of Congress to fly in and out of the nation’s capital.
Burns showed his U.S. Senate identification to a TSA agent who refused to accept it, telling him she was not familiar with the government-issued photo ID. He had to produce another form of picture ID she demanded. In an attempt to be funny, Burns offered his Sam’s Club shopping card. The agent accepted it and sent Burns on his way.
There is no shortage of shameful exploits by TSA agents and other airport security personnel in the post 9/11 era. An octogenarian World War II hero was delayed and repeatedly searched when he attempted to board a plan carrying his Congressional Medal of Honor. A planeload of soldiers were forced to remain in their jetliner during a four-hour layover. TSA officials ruled the servicemen posed a security threat because they had weapons stored in the belly of the aircraft. The soldiers were en route home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Another soldier, who had his jaw wired shut following surgery for a bullet wound, was prohibited from boarding his aircraft because he possessed a small pair of wire cutters required to cut open his jaw in a medical emergency.
These embarrassing episodes are not surprising to anyone familiar with government bureaucrats armed with “rules, policies and procedures” and employing no commonsense. Unfortunately, crafting and issuing rules and regulations and then mindlessly enforcing them without considering the implications is a longtime government pastime.
I have witnessed countless examples of bureaucrats in action with their rules while serving as a commissioned officer with nearly 30 years of total service on active duty and in the reserves in the Navy.
Five years ago, a Navy lawyer issued a new decree that military personnel were no longer permitted to possess cellular telephones with built-in cameras while on Navy facilities. Sailors armed with such consumer electronics posed a national security risk, he reasoned, because they could take photographs on base that could potentially be exploited by terrorist sleeper cells. Seriously.
In a series of back and forth discussions I pointed out that Navy Exchanges on base often sell these same cell phones as well as significantly higher resolution cameras (which he did not consider banning). Besides, I asked him, why is it we can trust sailors with access to classified information, high performance aircraft, missiles and other weaponry and we issue them handguns, but we can’t trust them with cell phone cameras? He grudgingly rescinded his ban.
Six months ago, I had a similar run-in with bureaucratic rules and logic. I needed to renew my military identification. Unlike the old, familiar green ID card, the new identification card has an embedded computer chip that allows the ID card to double as a smart card. Called a “common access card,” the Navy CAC is used as both identification and to access the Navy’s intranet computer system via a smart card reader.
My CAC had expired days earlier so I contacted an issuing office to get a replacement. A clerk in the ID card office informed me that all appointments had to be made online using the intranet. Yet, my expired CAC prevented me from using the intranet system. In spite of my predicament the clerk told me, “Our policy requires all appointments to be scheduled online. If you are unable to use the intranet, then there is nothing more I can do.” It sounded like the beginning of an Abbott and Costello routine.
Rather than fight this particular battle, I decided to renew my CAC at another issuing office. While there, I was asked to produce a picture ID. I showed my state driver’s license. I was then asked for a second form of ID and was told the CAC was not acceptable since it expired five days earlier. A week earlier it would have been valid, but on this day it was deemed worthless. So I showed the clerk my company-issued ID card that looked as though it was made on an office computer and laminated at the local Kinko’s. As a matter of fact, that was exactly how that ID was manufactured. But it was good enough. The clerk accepted the flimsy company ID over the just-expired military CAC.
It was déjà vu all over again when I recently accompanied my wife to get a replacement for her military dependent ID card, which she had lost. The clerk accepted her driver’s license as valid proof of identification, but ruled her county government-issued photo ID was not acceptable. However, she was informed her county government-issued voter registration ID, which does not have a photograph, was acceptable. She could also use a Social Security card (without a photo) but, the clerk warned, she could not use her U.S. passport because it had expired a few years earlier. (“Hey, Abbott!”)
The irony is that I was in my wife’s presence, I had multiple picture identifications (including my military CAC) to prove my identification, she had her driver’s license, I vouched for her, and she is registered in the Defense Department database. Yet, the rules allowed no flexibility. A county government-issued picture ID was deemed invalid, but a county government-issued voter registration without a picture was acceptable.
On principle, I pursued this matter through the next four higher levels of supervisors with each one telling me the same thing. They agreed the rules were absurd but none of them wanted to take the bold step of making an exception.
We were eventually forced to leave and return with a second form of acceptable identification. My wife dug through her files and offered an old voter registration card issued in 1980 and 31-year old high school identification. Both were deemed acceptable forms of ID and she was immediately issued a new military dependent ID card.
Just think of it. Her recently expired passport was ruled unacceptable but her three-decade old high school ID that was so crudely fashioned that it made my company-manufactured ID appear to be high-tech was deemed valid. You cannot make up this stuff. Yet, it all fell nicely within the rules: student IDs (regardless how old) are acceptable forms of identification. Same thing held for her nearly 30-year old voter registration card.
What makes this episode even sadder is that the military CAC is generally not accepted as a valid form of identification for use by visitors to the Pentagon. Visitors must also have a Pentagon-issued ID or another form of identification such as a state driver’s license. The reason, according to a security officer, is that at least one machine that manufactures CACs and several hundred blank CACs are missing and presumed to have been stolen. Security officials do not know which CAC is valid and which is a forgery.
In the meantime, bureaucrats with badges will ensure that only legitimate military wives, husbands, and children use the on-base commissary, auto hobby shop, and McDonald’s restaurant.