Disclosure of TSA Manual Stirs Leak Anxiety

By December 10, 2009

The inadvertent disclosure of a “sensitive” Transportation Security Administration manual on procedures for screening airline passengers has prompted renewed interest in legal remedies and penalties that may be available to the government to minimize the impact of such unauthorized disclosures.

In a letter (pdf) to the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, several Republican lawmakers asked:  What can be done to prevent the continued publication of such material on non-governmental web sites (such as cryptome.org and wikileaks.org)?

“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?” wrote Reps. Peter T. King (R-NY), Charles W. Dent (R-PA) and Gus M. Bilirakis (R-FL).

“Is the Department 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 short answer seems to be that existing legal authorities cannot easily be used to compel the removal of such records from public websites, and that any attempt to do so would likely be counterproductive, and would itself do damage to press freedom and other societal values.

Meanwhile, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh yesterday lashed out at the Federation of American Scientists in his own commentary on the TSA Manual disclosure.

“What an unmitigated disaster this is,” he said.  “Every day it’s something, every day is an unmitigated disaster.  ‘The original version of the manual [is] still available online preserved by websites that monitor government secrecy and computer security’ [a quote from the Washington Post], which tells you all you need to know about the motives of these sites, such as the so-called watchdogs at the Federation of American Scientists.”

This is not as gratifying as it might have been, since FAS had nothing to do with the disclosure of the TSA Manual.  In fact, had we been the ones to discover the unredacted Manual, we probably would have refrained from publishing it.

In 2005, the National Security Agency published a tutorial on how to properly redact and publish sensitive documents.  See “Redacting with Confidence: How to Safely Publish Sanitized Reports Converted From Word to PDF” (pdf).

Categories: Secrecy