Latest Update: The TSA has dropped its subpoenas of both travel writers, and I learned a big lesson in the power of social media this week.
Earlier this morning, photographer and travel specialist Steven Frischling received a second visit from federal agents in less than 24 hours. But this time, he says, they removed his computer from his home.
Frischling is one of two noted writers, including Christopher Elliot, who over the weekend published a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security directive outlining the agency's new stricter security guidelines in the wake of a failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on Delta Air Lines flight 253.
Both men posted the directive as a means of public service to better inform a traveling public that was completely befuddled by the vague formal guidance being issued by the TSA. They were some of the few calm voices amidst the storm.
With tempers flaring over what appeared to many to be the TSA's misguided and knee-jerk reaction to the failed terrorist plot - and with confusion reigning in airports across the country - the agency early this week did an about-face and eased its guidelines before today's deadline.
Nonetheless, Frischling and Elliot are now paying a steep price for posting the TSA security directive on their respective web sites. Both have been served subpoenas by TSA special agents. In short, the agency is trying to discover who leaked the directive to Frischling and Elliot. And they are not messing around.
According to Frishling, federal agents this morning removed his computer for forensics analysis. He says he didn't see any other recourse than to hand over the equipment. "It was 'give it to us voluntarily or we will take every computer, blackberry and iPhone out of your house'," Frischling tells RWG.
But the TSA's effort to uncover Frischling's source may well prove a waste of time not to mention taxpayer's money.
Says Frischling: "The email came to me via webmail [which was checked yesterday by the agents]. There is literally nothing on my computer they can look at. I didn't seek out the source. I don't know who my source is. It is not someone I know or have a relationship with or cultivated. It comes from a free email account. For me, once I received the document, read it, and saw that Chris Elliot had it, there was no doubt in my mind that it was a real document."
Elliot is a noted travel journalist, who also happens to be National Geographic Traveler's Reader Advocate, writes a regular column for The Washington Post, and produces a weekly segment for MSNBC.
Furthermore, says Frischling, it begs reason why the TSA would assume such a document wouldn't be published or distributed. "The document says nowhere in there that it's not to be published publicly. It was sent to thousands of people - all airports and airlines that fly into the USA. It went to the airport in Islamabad and Hong Kong, for instance. Pakistan Airlines flies to JFK. Plus the TSA has about 50,000 people in the agency."
The TSA has confirmed it is investigating how its security directive was leaked: "The Office of Inspection is investigating how the security directive was published by parties who shouldn't have been privy to the document," says a TSA spokeswoman.
Asked by RWG if the TSA gave any direction to airlines on how or if to divulge the details of the security directive to passengers (since some passengers are saying they heard the SD read before take-off), the TSA spokeswoman says: "I don't know what direction the airlines were given but certainly that's something we have to look into."
She adds: "Airlines have received security directives in the past. I can't answer why they read it aloud to passengers."
The TSA spokeswoman is trying to get me clarity on this point.
It is appropriate to mention that the security directive said the following:
"AIRCRAFT OPERATOR dissemination required: The aircraft operator must immediately pass the information and directives set forth in this SD to all stations affected, and provide written confirmation to its PSI, indicating that all stations affected have acknowledged receipt of the information and directives set forth in this SD. The aircraft operator must disseminate this information to its senior management personnel, ground security coordinators, and supervisory security personnel at all affected locations. All aircraft operator personnel implementing this SD must be briefed by the aircraft operator on its content and the restrictions governing dissemination. No other dissemination may be made without prior approval of the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration. Unauthorized dissemination of this document or information contained herein is prohibited by 49 CFR Part 1520 (see 69 Fed. Reg. 28066 (May 18, 2004)."
However, keep in mind that the directive was sent to airlines and airports worldwide. Was it not their specific duty to follow the dissemination instructions?
Lest you wonder whether Frischling did his homework before posting the security directive, he says he did. "I contacted [TSA] public affairs multiple times via phone and text and they gave me absolutely nothing. I spoke to the TSA. They didn't call me back. Then I put something out on Twitter. I verified if off of [Chris Elliot's site]. I read the document. I'm not stupid. If the security directive was fake, they [federal agents] wouldn't be standing in my living room [last night and this morning]."
He also points out that several carriers, including Air Canada, provided more explicit details to passengers than even available on the TSA's own web site. (Personally, I found some carriers, like JetBlue and WestJet, to be extremely helpful and forthcoming, providing Twitter updates about the impact of the short-lived TSA guidelines on in-flight entertainment and connectivity.)
To read more about the drama unfolding around Frischling and Elliot, check out their blogs at http://boardingarea.com/blogs/flyingwithfish/ and http://www.elliott.org/, respectively.