Lawmakers Want to Bar Sites From Posting Sensitive Government Docs

Lawmakers Want to Bar Sites From Posting Sensitive Government Docs
By Kim Zetter, December 10, 2009

Three Republican lawmakers have asked the Department of Homeland Security what can be done to bar or criminally penalize whistleblower sites that reposted a sensitive airport-screening manual that was published on the internet by a government worker.

They also asked about enacting regulations that would bar such publication in the future.

The congressmen are outraged that sites like Cryptome and Wikileaks republished the manual after it was posted online by a government contractor working for the Transportation Security Administration. The manual was posted last March on a government procurement site and was discovered Sunday by a blogger.

In their letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (.pdf) on Wednesday, Reps. Peter T. King (R - New York), Charles Dent (R - Pennsylvania) and Gus Bilirakis (R - Florida) asked, “How has the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration addressed the repeated reposting of this security manual to other websites, and what legal action, if any, can be taken to compel its removal?”

They also asked if DHS is “considering issuing new regulations pursuant to its authority in Section 114 of Title 49, United States Code, and are criminal penalties necessary or desirable to ensure such information is not reposted in the future?”

The letter from the congressmen was first posted by Secrecy News.

The TSA manual was not classified but was designated Sensitive Security Information, or SSI. Parts of the TSA manual were redacted, but the redaction was bungled and allowed anyone to easily uncover the concealed information. But even the unredacted parts of the document were never meant to be seen by the public. The Screening Management Standard Operating Procedure contained this warning: “No part of this record may be disclosed to persons without a ‘need to know.’”

Even if the manual had been classified, the United States does not have a law prohibiting the publication of classified information, although the government has threatened on occasion to use espionage laws to prosecute journalists for publishing such information.

The 93-page manual provided details about which passengers are more likely to be targeted for secondary screening at airports, who is exempt from screening, TSA procedures for screening foreign dignitaries and CIA-escorted passengers, and extensive instructions for calibrating metal detectors and screening for traces of explosive materials.

It revealed the limitations of screening equipment to detect certain types of electrical wire and other potential bomb-making materials and provided details about what objects — such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs — are exempt from screening.

The manual also provided sample images of sensitive identification cards for DHS and CIA personnel as well as congressional representatives. And it disclosed that passengers carrying passports from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen or Algeria are to be designated for selective screening.

The manual was removed from the government site on Sunday, but not before someone had grabbed a copy of it and submitted it to Cryptome. Numerous copies have subsequently appeared on other sites, including Wikileaks — whose servers are located around the globe.

The three congressmen, who are members of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote in their letter that the release of the information had security implications that went beyond aviation security.

“TSA screeners and equipment were utilized by the Secret Service frequently during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns to augment Service Personnel and continue to be used by the Secret Service at National Special Security Events,” they wrote.

In case terrorists didn’t fully comprehend the point they were trying to make, the congressmen added that the leak of the document “could prove to have disastrous consequences for the security of President Obama.”

Five TSA workers were put on leave this week pending an investigation into TSA’s redaction procedures and the publication of the manual on the government site.