Remember the embarrassment that the Transportation Security Administration suffered last month, when a bout of lax editing allowed the TSA standard operating manual to leak across the Web? Last week, the TSA inflicted another public relations snafu upon itself. Agents subpoenaed two travel bloggers who published the organization’s temporary procedures in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, only to drop the subpoenas shortly thereafter.
The document, which the two bloggers published within minutes of each other Dec. 27, was sent by TSA to airlines and airports around the world and described temporary new requirements for screening passengers through Dec. 30, including conducting “pat-downs” of legs and torsos. The document, which was not classified, was posted by numerous bloggers. Information from it was also published on some airline websites [Wired.com]. Still, the TSA (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS) decided to target the two bloggers, Chris Elliott and Steven Frischling, to make them reveal who leaked the information to them. And the strong-arm tactics the agency used quickly made it look draconian and repressive.
After both men published accounts (Elliott, Frischling) of the TSA threats on their blogs, media outlets picked up the story and the TSA dropped both subpoenas. Public embarrassment could have induced the TSA to leave the bloggers be, but the agency may have already had what it wanted by the time the story broke. DHS officials returned to Mr Frischling’s home on Wednesday morning and forced him to hand over his laptop computer. The TSA has since dropped both subpoenas, but it’s certainly possible that the agency was able to discern the leaker’s identity by sifting through the information on Mr Frischling’s computer [The Economist].
Perhaps the TSA simply wanted to find out who sends its info to members of the media, even though the information in this case wasn’t actually classified. In a statement Friday, the the agency wrote, “TSA takes any breach in security very seriously. In light of the posting of sensitive security information on the web, TSA sought to identify where the information came from. The investigation is nearing a successful conclusion and the subpoenas are no longer in effect” [CNN]. Frischling said the TSA also apologized to him, but only after taking the laptop and threatening to get him fired from his job writing a blog for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Wired.com reports. Frischling also says the TSA agents indicated that they could have him declared a security risk, which presumably meant he’d be flagged for additional screening at airports.
The TSA’s public stance, expecting privacy for information sent to thousands of people around the world (and posted on some airline Web sites), smacks of the same unfair finger-pointing that the U.S. Senate was guilty of when it lambasted the TSA in response to the leak of the standard operation manual in early December. At that time, the TSA lacked an official head because of a political fight in the Senate over nominee Erroll Southers, led by Senator Jim DeMint. The South Carolina Republican wants Mr. Southers to promise that he would oppose granting collective-bargaining rights to the TSA’s tens of thousands of employees [Wall Street Journal]. A month later, that fight still goes on, and the TSA remains without a Senate-approved leader.
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