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TSA Looks to VA and DoD for “Mental Defectives”
December 18, 2005
Military personnel and veterans with mental health issues could end up on the TSA’s “Watch List” and be denied access to commercial flights – Who has access to the information is a primary concern
by Larry Scott
How far are we willing to go when it comes to “security” on commercial airline flights? The ugly side of that question came to light on November 15 when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) posted a “sources sought” inquiry on their web site.
The TSA is looking for contractors to build new databases to help screen airline passengers. They want to include information about military personnel from Department of Defense (DoD) files and veterans from Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) files.
According to the TSA, here’s what they want: “Examples of new data sources would be DoD files for military service histories or VA files for lists of persons who have been declared mental defectives.”
The story was first reported by Jacob Goodwin in Government Security News. Jeff Stein, National Security Editor of Congressional Quarterly, followed with an article and then was interviewed on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.
The TSA’s computer system is called the Transportation Threat Assessment and Credentialing Screening Gateway and accesses government record systems such as Social Security files and FBI criminal records.
But, this next step of looking for “mental defectives” in military and veterans’ records presents multiple problems. Who is a mentally defective? If a person has had mental health issues, what criteria would the TSA use in blocking access to a commercial airline flights? What level of mental health problems would kick a person onto the TSA’s Watch List? And, who would have access to the medical records of millions of military service members and veterans?
Of special interest to military personnel and veterans is the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Would troops and veterans diagnosed with PTSD be stopped at the gate by the TSA? Various studies indicate that anywhere from ten per cent to 30 per cent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from some symptoms of PTSD. And, add at least 100,000 Vietnam-era veterans and many more from the Gulf War.
Years ago, the military put special codes on discharge papers to indicate a person had a mental or personality disorder. Many of those disorders were not detailed. And, many veterans still live with the stigma of having been discharged with a “Personality Disorder, Unspecified.”
Although the use of these types of discharge codes was done away with in 1974, they still exist on many veterans’ records. And, the true meaning of the codes is well-known and often prevents a veteran from getting gainful employment.
Officially, the DoD and the VA do not have a category labeled “mental defective” to designate a medical condition. But, the term “mental defective” is used widely by the government. A “mental defective” cannot get a gun permit from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Here is the ATF’s definition of “mental defective” -- “A determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease: (1) Is a danger to himself or to others; or (2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs. The term shall include a finding of insanity by a court in a criminal case.”
Will PTSD make a person a “mental defective?” How about a “Personality Disorder, Unspecified?” Or some anger management issues or even a divorce?
The concept of the TSA using the above definition of “mental defective” is so sad and frightening that it is almost laughable. When I posted this story on my web site, one veteran emailed and said, “If I’m rated at just 50 per cent for PTSD, what do I have to leave at home to make sure I can get on the plane?”
Today, access to military and VA records is carefully controlled. Soldiers and veterans have been fairly comfortable about the security of their medical records. That appears to be changing.
When the TSA contracts with private-sector software developers to create a database of military and veteran “mental defectives” the entire concept of privacy goes out the window. You might as well publish the information online. Everyone from insurance companies to private detectives will have access.
I’m sure there will be moves to stop the TSA from digging into medical records. Civil rights groups and veterans’ service organizations will lead the way. But, this move by the TSA will be done in the name of National Security. And, we now know that anything can be done in the name of National Security since President Bush has admitted to ordering domestic spying. The DoD and the VA will find themselves in the situation of having to comply with the TSA’s request for medical information.
The TSA said, in their “sources sought” inquiry, that they are looking for two new data sources every year. What are the next two data sources? Civilian medical records could be one of those. Again, in the name of national security, healthcare providers might have to hand over medical records of private citizens to be added to the TSA’s database.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. I’m sure some agency knows that I rented the DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11 from the video store and, at the library, checked out a copy of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. But, the idea of them having my medical records to see if I should be kept off an airplane because I MIGHT be a “mental defective” makes me want to go back to the library and check out a copy of 1984.
Larry Scott (firstname.lastname@example.org ) served four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Journalism. After the Army, Larry was a news anchor on WNBC Radio in New York City. He receives VA compensation for a service-connected disability. Larry is a regular on the Thom Hartmann show on KPOJ radio in Portland, Oregon. Today, Larry resides in Southwest Washington and operates the website VA Watchdog dot Org.