TSA Bullies Bloggers Who Published Leaked Procedures
There’s quite a bit of chatter this morning about the fact that two travel bloggers of whom I’d never previously heard have had their computers confiscated pursuant to subpoenas after publishing unclassified but sensitive TSA screening procedures. AP’s Eileen Sullivan has the rundown:
As the government reviews how an alleged terrorist was able to bring a bomb onto a U.S.-bound plane and try to blow it up on Christmas Day, the Transportation Security Administration is going after bloggers who wrote about a directive to increase security after the incident. TSA special agents served subpoenas to travel bloggers Steve Frischling and Chris Elliott, demanding that they reveal who leaked the security directive to them. The government says the directive was not supposed to be disclosed to the public.
Frischling said he met with two TSA special agents Tuesday night at his Connecticut home for about three hours and again on Wednesday morning when he was forced to hand over his lap top computer. Frischling said the agents threatened to interfere with his contract to write a blog for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines if he didn’t cooperate and provide the name of the person who leaked the memo. “It literally showed up in my box,” Frischling told The Associated Press. “I do not know who it came from.” He said he provided the agents a signed statement to that effect.
In a Dec. 29 posting on his blog, Elliott said he had told the TSA agents at his house that he would call his lawyer and get back to them. Elliott said late Wednesday he could not comment until the legal issues had been resolved.
The TSA directive outlined new screening measures that went into effect the same day as the airliner incident. It included many procedures that would be apparent to the traveling public, such as screening at boarding gates, patting down the upper legs and torso, physically inspecting all travelers’ belongings, looking carefully at syringes with powders and liquids, requiring that passengers remain in their seats one hour before landing, and disabling all onboard communications systems, including what is provided by the airline. It also listed people who would be exempted from these screening procedures such as heads of state and their families.
So far, I can live with this. As several reporters, including those employed by prestige outlets like the New York Times, have learned to their chagrin, there is no federal shield law. That means journalists are required, like any other citizen, to comply with subpoenas or face the consequences.
But it gets much uglier, as Wired‘s Kim Zetter reports,
“They’re saying it’s a security document but it was sent to every airport and airline,” says Steven Frischling, one of the bloggers. “It was sent to Islamabad, to Riyadh and to Nigeria. So they’re looking for information about a security document sent to 10,000-plus people internationally. You can’t have a right to expect privacy after that.”
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said in a statement that security directives “are not for public disclosure.” “TSA’s Office of Inspections is currently investigating how the recent Security Directives were acquired and published by parties who should not have been privy to this information,” the statement said.
Frischling, a freelance travel writer and photographer in Connecticut who writes a blog for the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, said the two agents who visited him arrived around 7 p.m. Tuesday, were armed and threatened him with a criminal search warrant if he didn’t provide the name of his source. They also threatened to get him fired from his KLM job and indicated they could get him designated a security risk, which would make it difficult for him to travel and do his job. “They were indicating there would be significant ramifications if I didn’t cooperate,” said Frischling, who was home alone with his three children when the agents arrived. “It’s not hard to intimidate someone when they’re holding a 3-year-old [child] in their hands. My wife works at night. I go to jail, and my kids are here with nobody.”
A former federal prosecutor who asked not to be identified told Threat Level that the TSA is being heavy-handed in how it’s handling the matter. “It strikes me that someone at TSA is apoplectic that somehow there’s a sense that they’re not doing their job right,” he told Threat level. “To go into this one reporter’s house and copy his computer files and threaten him, it strikes me that they’re more aggressive with this reporter than with the guy who got on this flight.”
While I’m not an attorney, there’s no reason to think the bloggers in question did anything illegal, or even unethical, in publishing documents that TSA failed to secure. People who have security clearances and authorized access to government documents have a fiduciary obligation to protect them and can, in some instances, face serious criminal penalties for disclosing them to unauthorized recipients — including those with sufficient clearances but no need to know. But civilians who receive classified information through the illegal actions of government employees have no legal duty to safeguard it. Indeed, the Supreme Court has ruled that newspapers are within their 1st Amendment rights to publish even Top Secret documents.
I’ve got no beef with TSA trying to figure out who leaked these documents. The person or persons who did so did indeed compromise security procedures and deserve to face the consequences of their actions. Once subpoenaed, Frishling and Elliot were under obligation to cooperate. But the heavy-handed treatment is uncalled for. And threatening to place someone on a no-fly list reserved for terrorist suspects is an abuse of authority, pure and simple. If true, the perpetrator should face severe sanctions.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds‘ pithy summary of the episode:
Threatening public safety — wrong. Making bureaucrats look bad — unforgivable!
A tad unfair, perhaps, but a great line.