“I Don’t Think We Accept These,” Says TSA Agent, Peering at D.C. License [Update]

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Logo by Rhys Gibson, posted by Bruce SchneierTurns out they do, so that was good news for Ashley Brandt, who was therefore allowed to fly back from Phoenix to her home in the District of Columbia.

Which, as some of you may know, is part of the United States.

In fact, it's the capital of the United States.

These were apparently facts unknown to the TSA agent who checked Brandt's ID last week on her way back from a visit to the Grand Canyon (also in the United States) over the Presidents' (of the United States) Day weekend. According to the Washington (D.C., America) Post, Brandt said that in the security line at the Phoenix (close to but not in Mexico) airport, the agent was puzzled by her D.C. license:

[She] began to shake her head. "I don't know if we can accept these," Brandt recalled the agent saying. "Do you have a U.S. passport?"

She did not, probably because she had at no time traveled outside the U.S. during this trip and was betting on the fact that our nation's crack security forces would know which places are part of the nation they're supposed to be securing and which places aren't. Well, evidently some TSA employees are aware of such things. They get promoted to supervisor:

Brandt says the agent yelled out to a supervisor, working in [an] adjacent security line. Are D.C. licenses valid identification?

Brandt says she could hear the response, "Yeah, we accept those."

"She didn't seem to know that it was basically the same as a state ID," said Brandt…. "D.C. is obviously not a state, but I didn't ever imagine it would be a problem—I mean, the whole population of D.C. has to use these."

Hold on—D.C. not a state? Nope. Turns out it's a federal district that was created from land donated by Maryland and Virginia (both states). Virginia got its part back in 1846 (not that it was grateful; see War, Civil), but the other part is the location of the nation's (America) capital to this very day. But it is not, in fact, a "state."

It is, though, a part of the "United States." For example, federal law defines "permanent seat of government of the United States" as "[a]ll that part of the territory of the United States included within the present [as of 1947] limits of the District of Columbia…." If that territory hadn't already been considered part of the "United States," that wouldn't make any sense and so the country would have no permanent seat of government. Maybe it doesn't. Also, people born in the District of Columbia are U.S. citizens—in fact, Title 8 defines D.C. and the four incorporated organized territories as U.S. "states" for this purpose. It'd be a little weird to make such people citizens of a country of which their birthplace was not a part, wouldn't it? Of course, maybe I'm reading these incorrectly, or MAYBE THE TSA SHOULD MAKE SURE ALL ITS PEOPLE KNOW WHAT THE "UNITED STATES" IS. Keeping an open mind here.

A TSA spokesthing directed inquiries to the agency's website, which lists 14 different kinds of acceptable IDs, including "Driver's [l]icenses or other state photo identity cards," though I guess that wouldn't help an agent puzzling over what a "District of Columbia" might be. I notice that the list also includes foreign passports and driver's licenses issued in Canada, which technically speaking and from a U.S. perspective is also a foreign country. If foreign IDs are acceptable, where exactly did the agent think this person was from?

It's disappointing that after all the money it spent on pizza-box-top advertising, the TSA still doesn't seem to be able to attract top candidates. Maybe it should advertise on a better class of pizza?

Update: Above I described the four relevant territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the Northern Marianas) as "incorporated," which was … not entirely right. D.W. writes, "I'm pretty sure you mean 'the four organized territories'….. the only incorporated territory is Palmyra Atoll, which is uninhabited." He's right. This is a complicated area, but one that I researched to some extent for my book chapter on the Guano Islands Act of 1856, so I should have known the answer. Here's a summary at the Department of the Interior's website.

Short version: If a jurisdiction isn't a state or a federal district, it's an "insular area." There are different kinds of these. If the Constitution applies in full there, it's an "incorporated territory." If Congress has enacted a body of laws for that territory, it's also called an "organized territory." Looks like both those terms technically apply to the four listed above, but they would usually be referred to as "organized." The only incorporated territory that hasn't been organized is Palmyra Island, but nobody cares too much because nobody lives there.