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Secrecy -- For TSA, Just Another Tool of the Trade

05/10/2010 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings." ~ John F. Kennedy

Sensitive Security Information, or SSI, was born in the seventies with the Transportation Security Act of 1974 -- a reaction to airline hijackings along with the first rudimentary examples of airport screening. SSI was intended to restrain outright dissemination of material deemed detrimental to security, while granting access to airlines and other "porous" stakeholders with a "need to know." But in the seventies its congressional authors and even Richard Nixon couldnʼt have possessed the imagination to predict something as Orwellian and colossal as the Department of Homeland Security and TSA.

With their brusque arrival in late 2001 and early 2002, however, it shouldnʼt have surprised us that the new organizations would so enthusiastically embrace a form of security classification thatʼs not really classified, and consequently isnʼt accountable to established policy as are "Confidential" and "Top Secret." From the governmentʼs standpoint it has the same practical benefit: it blocks information that cannot be requested by you or me under the Freedom of Information Act, or "FOIA," for short.

Documents stamped SSI, are TSAʼs own version of tranched toxic mortgages, because once stashed away, nobody understands their scope, their connection, their importance, or even where to find them. And of course we donʼt even know they exist. The motive for all this most of the time is to spare the agency embarrassment. But that doesnʼt make them any less devastating for citizens, dedicated TSA employees, and the process of democratic government.

In January of 2005, a commercial pilot in Massachusetts was labeled "a security risk" by TSA and barred from flying aircraft larger than the Cessnas that Cape Air was using to haul passengers from Boston to Cape Cod. He eventually prevailed, but not without the intervention of the ACLU and months of Kafkaesque activity without due process, because TSA imposed SSI status on the charges so that his lawyers didnʼt even know what to defend. (One might have thought that for a lawsuit, "need to know" would be pretty fundamental. Isnʼt that the reason for "discovery?")

Our documentary Please Remove Your Shoes reveals an incident in 2006 in which a federal air marshal reported corruption about his office to the House Judiciary Committee. After TSA requested a courtesy copy of the congressional report, it labeled it SSI, preventing its disclosure to the public, or even certain members of Congress, presumably because they didnʼt have a "need to know." In another whistleblower case, a Federal Air Marshal was fired for publicizing an insensitive incident to the press, even though the TSA three years later "retroclassified" the details to justify their action.

Recalling times when TSA was automatically inking "sensitive security information" on everything it typed, a flyer was found in a Las Vegas field office advertising the retirement of a secretary there, and the fact that "coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts would be available at 4:00 in room 356 for all attendees who cared to see her off."

Ironically, the biggest loser from the bad habit of hiding everything can be government itself. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (a watchdog of government secrecy since the Manhattan Project), was one of my early interviewees. He cites the case of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski as a perfect example: After 18 years of fruitless hunting by the FBI, the details of his case were finally released to the public, where they appeared in a newspaper, to be read by Kaczynskiʼs younger brother David. Recognizing items of his brother, David called the FBI and gave them the location of a woodland cabin in Montana. The Unabomber was arrested shortly thereafter.

One would hope that TSA could learn from these examples, but they clearly cannot. Secrecy in this agency is a blight on all its activities, the integrity of its management, and frustrates intelligent discussion on its policies, budget, employment practices, and relations with the citizenry. Brian Sullivan, a former FAA Special Agent and key participant in Please Remove Your Shoes, forwarded me the following email from an anonymous TSA employee:

Brian: The latest near tragedy with the Times Square bombing attempt and now the NFL (No Fly List - authorʼs note) issue, should have everybody looking once again at the air carriers having the ability to call the shots when it comes to aviation security. TSA has contracted the NFL implementation process out and itʼs a mess. As usual, TSA is lying about the whole thing. I can't give specifics due to SSI rules, but congress should be holding hearings on what TSA and the air carriers have been doing and someone should FOIA all the correspondence between the carriers and TSA on Secure Flight. To me, it is tantamount to criminal negligence.

While the current administration can scarcely be criticized for creation of a super agency developed under its predecessor, neither has it been able to open it up its practices to the healthy light of day for all, including congress, to oversee. And nothing else is likely to help.

"Transparency in government." There is a nice ring to it, though, isn't there?