UPDATE: Paying a price for setting the record straight?

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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.

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29 Responses to UPDATE: Paying a price for setting the record straight?

  1. David Parker Brown December 30, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    Great write up. This just doesn’t make any sense. So many people already saw the directive. “Main” media had it a few days after these guys did. One person sent it to Chris and Fish, I am sure if other bloggers got it, we would have posted it too.

    The TSA was already getting bad PR from this directive to begin with and this is surely NOT going to help their cause.

    They should be spending more time on making SMARTER security instead of chasing down a few helpful (and harmless) bloggers.

  2. Christopher Fotos December 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    My heart goes out to these guys. But personally I’d tread very carefully before posting documents like that. And Mary, is it really true that “The document says nowhere in there that it’s not to be published publicly.” I’m finding the following in the docs as posted: 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). As a grey-haired reporter and longtime Washingtonian, I know all manner of CYA is associated with that boilerplate but that’s a red flag. The question for anyone with such a document in their hands is whether you’re really confident your own judgment can be substituted for that of even a smoke-blowing bureaucrat. I’ll be posting my own take over at Things With Wings.

  3. Liz M December 30, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    Ok, let’s step back for a second. Deep breath. Ok. Frischling claims “The document says nowhere in there that it’s not to be published publicly.” Sorry, but that’s wrong, clearly printed in the document (not even in small print at the very bottom) it says “No other dissemination may be made without prior approval of the Assistant Secretary for the Transportation Security Administration.” So, was it wrong for someone, anyone, to leak this document? Yes. But I’m not even gonna nitpick about the legality. I’m more concerned with the morality. Whether leaking this document put people’s lives at risk. You might be surprised ^^

    For example, lots of people are making fun of the “no getting up or using any electronics during the last 60 minutes of the flight” bit, and sure, if a terrorist KNEW about that new rule, they’d just set off the bomb earlier and be done with it. But the point is, THEY SHOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN. They should have been sitting there, waiting until the moment when they could do the most damage, and then suddenly been told to put everything away and strap in. Had that happened, it *might* have actually prevented a terrorist incident, or at least given neighboring passengers a reason to get suspicious if he continued trying to blow the plane up.

    Is it a one in a billion chance? Sure. Were the TSA’s new security measures the best possible way to prevent another terrorist attack? That’s a matter of opinion until such a measure actually does prevent a terrorist attack. Did releasing the details of said security measures to the public hinder the TSA’s efforts to make our skies safer, and potentially put more passengers at risk? I think the answer to that is a definite yes. Whether you feel the measures were ridiculous or not, it is a fact that they would be more effective (heck, let’s be honest, they’d ONLY be effective) if the terrorists didn’t know about them in advance.

    Free speech and freedom of the press are essential, but there are times when, just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD ;)

  4. thewinchester December 30, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    Fair point LizM, but the fact is the details of the SD are basically being broadcast upon every plane affected by it.

    What these two writers published was already common knowledge, albeit potentially sporadic and disconnected, which renders the whole ‘small print’ argument moot. All they did was connect the dots, helped in part by their alleged receipt of the SD verbatim.

  5. Mary Kirby December 30, 2009 at 1:15 pm #

    Liz,
    I must second thewinchester’s point. Your argument would be sound if every airline flying into the USA wasn’t verbally providing the same guidance to passengers (including, presumably, would-be terrorists). Reports had already started to surface about the extent of the new guidelines. Steven and Chris merely posted the directive – without comment, I might add – for public consumption.

  6. Matt December 30, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    Liz, interesting theory, but no.

    First, the final 60 minutes rule is one that can only be enforced if people know about it. If flight attendants just start barking draconian rules at passengers that they’ve never heard about, chaos ensues.

    Second, while this guy may have waited until the flight was near its destination, he was clearly not ready for the big game. Al Qaeda plots to blow up airliners over the ocean have already been thwarted. What rule will prevent that? None.

  7. Drrka December 30, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    “This just doesn’t make any sense.” – By David Parker Brown on December 30, 2009 11:59 AM

    Of course it makes sense. The government does whatever they want whenever they want.

    I flew YYZ-LAX on Dec 27 and the Captain of the aircraft read the directive to passengers before the cabin door was closed and we left gate (at least the parts that applied to passengers – minus the head of state stuff). The Captain made it very clear he was reading from the directive, even at times adding his own commentary then saying “now back to the text…” How is this stuff any secret when millions of travelers went through the hassles mandated by the directive (it took me almost four hours to get from check-in to my gate in terminal 3 at YYZ, a process that usually takes 15 minutes)?

  8. Darrin December 30, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

    Get your facts straight:

    “The document says nowhere in there that it’s not to be published publicly”

    This is not true. he’s a quote from the SD:

    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).

  9. Mary Kirby December 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    The document was sent to airports and airlines all over the world. They were advised not to disseminate. It remains unclear if it was an airline – or an insider at the TSA – who gave the goods to Steven and Chris (or both!) Don’t shoot the messenger! (If you did, you wouldn’t have much in the way of free press, would you?)

  10. Alfonso Alatorre December 30, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    This is just a mess, you just cant talk. who knows if whatever you say might get on the goverment’s sensitive nerves!!

  11. Oussama December 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    It seems that the TSA is concerned and rightly so about a leak within the department. But when you send information to a 100 odd airlines who have to resend it to a few hundred station, it is very hard to locate a leak, especially after airlines start implementing the directive on board, add a few thousand passengers, it is a proverbial sieve.

    Hitting on two industry bloggers is not going to help the TSA quest for information. This is a directive that was supposed to be time limited and made known to the travelling public on board the aircraft.

    I do not see the harm or security breach that ensued from making the directive public other than embarrassing the TSA over the effectiveness or relevance of the directive itself.

  12. m in Seattle December 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm #

    As I read these blogs, I must admit to being somewhat disheartened. Boy…it’s really easy to be a critic. Representing the FBI as a drunken bum on a parkbench is really a cheap shot. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like RG’s blogs lately are more aligned with Fox news than real reporting.
    If we want to have a **real** discussion, how about suggesting what we **should** be doing about the very **real** threat of terrorism aboard planes. For, and let’s be very clear about this, if there is a “success”, and a plane is brought down, all this piddle about IFE and IFC will be out the window, as draconian measures are instituted, and, which will be supported by the public.
    So, who really knows about Full body imaging. Would it have prevented this?
    Should we be asking each passenger ( as they do with EL AL and flights that leave Israel), what their “story” is? It takes a whole new level of training to interview people and decide if they are legitimate or not. How can we integrate intelligence and databases? What should we be telling the public in terms of expectations of safety aboard planes and how do we educate them to this?
    Any…happy new year to all! :-)

  13. David Parker Brown December 30, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    M- You are TOTALLY right. I think by picking the drunk bum FBI shows the TSA is not busy doing the things you mentioned. Instead they rather talk about people not standing during the last hour of the flight, turning off GPS, and going after bloggers.

    Will bloggers feel comfortable being critical of the TSA or will be be afraid of a black car pulling up with a TSA agent?

    I WANT the TSA to talk about these things and discuss REAL security, I welcome them to do so!

  14. Mary Kirby December 30, 2009 at 4:19 pm #

    No right wing agenda here.Two journa-bloggers are the focus of a TSA investigation because they posted the agency’s directive, which was being verbally disseminated to passengers by airlines. If you were a passenger on a US-bound flight over the weekend (and you had a pen and paper handy), chances are you would have been able to scribble down the SD for yourself. Some secret!

  15. Uwe December 30, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    The FBI-Bum image may be not completely fair.
    And the issue at hand is no longer the
    diletantism of US services but something much
    more sinister.
    The Nigerian was originaly handed onto the first
    flight without ID. My guess is he was flagged
    for his transfer at Amsterdam similarly.
    CIA knew about his change in persona.
    This is now about US services staging terrorist
    attacks. For whatever unobvious gains.

  16. LEE SIXTA December 30, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    …GET OUT THE FULL BODY SCANNER….EXTRA….EXTRA… LARGE. LOL

  17. Anonymouse December 30, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    What this entire episode reveals is how much in disarray TSA and DHS are in right now. Getting a subpeona to go after bloggers in an attempt to find out who leaked the SD is an act of desperation on their part. Even if TSA had the legal right to do what they did, they are going to pay a huge price in the court of public opinion, and ultimately gain nothing for all of their efforts. Unless the TSA/DHS employee who disseminated the SD is an absolute moron, I’m sure he or she took appropriate steps to not leave an electronic trail.

    Do we want government employees disseminating security information? Ordinarily, I’d say no – unless the information being disclosed is nothing more than window dressing, which the instant case, is applicable. Let’s be honest here – mandating a 60 minute sit down, removing blankets, and turning off route maps is both silly AND ineffectual. If I knew who leaked this information, I’d reach out and congratulate him/her, because through his/her efforts, a thoroughly stupid directive was rescinded, thanks to public pressure that in part was prompted by this disclosure.

    Whoever you are “Deep Throat2″ keep up the good work!

  18. m in Seattle December 30, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    Mary…I do not agree with you all the time, but I think you are doing a great job of following your passion with IFE and IFC. No problem with that.
    The law is pretty cut and dried in certain areas, and when you have a **written** directive and then proceed to ignore that, then, you have not complied with that directive. If you hear about it through legitimate means ( the airlines etc) and report that, then then you have **not** broken the law. It’s really not that complicated.
    But, you are wandering into an area that opens you to criticism. Your colleague at flight blogger has stayed as far away from this incident as possible.
    The problem with taking an early stand is simply that you do not know all the facts. And…like it or not…many will use your blog, especially in this case which is so easy to politicize, to promote their own political agendas.

    Anyway, Mary, have a great New Year, as well as to all your readers.

  19. Mary Kirby December 30, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    And a Happy New Year to you too! To your point about being open to criticism, that comes with the territory of journa-blogging, I’m afraid.

  20. michaelk42 December 30, 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    Have we already forgotten New York Times Co. v. United States?

    Sorry m, but I’d say “Pentagon Papers” trumps written boilerplate directive.

  21. Stephen R. December 31, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    Whatever means of failure justified this guy boarding an airplane in Amsterdam remains to be seen. I’m quite sure agencies abroad did not communicate very well with agencies in the US. The lack of security for all involved still shows that after 9/11 we have become complacent once again. If there was leaked security information, why post it all over the internet, that clearly shows irresponsibility on TSA’s part. Now, let’s get real about this and pay attention so others may live!!

    Happy New Year

    Cheers
    Stephen

  22. Quilly Mammoth December 31, 2009 at 10:24 am #

    I have to disagree with Mr. Fotos. This is nothing like the security classification system that the military uses. Under 49 CFR 1520 _every_ Security Directive that the TSA issues, including how many rolls of TP to stock in TSA officer’s loo is Sensitive Security Information. You’ll see SD’s posted in public places…yet these are SSI!

    When traveling on the 27th I literally heard the damn thing read. So much for “sensitive”.

    And the important part is that TSA is able to issue a subpoena duces tecum (bring it or be punished)with zero court over sight; issued by TSA and enforced by TSA agents. Had a classified military document been revealed in this way the military would investigate and then have to get a court order served by US Marshals or the FBI. Military personnel might accompany the serving agents but would never be the actual serving agents of the court.

  23. Nate December 31, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

    Mary,

    SSI – Sensitive Security Information – is sent out ONLY to specific parties that have gone thru proper training and how to handle and relay this information. Yes, this was sent out to hundreds of airlines and airports, it was sent via secure method or thru the TSA Web board to those that “need to know”. It just didn’t come across a fax machine at an airport. The bottom of every SSI document clearly states this is a need-to-know and you can not distribute it to those who aren’t permitted.

    Now as the airline, we then take that information and change it around, interpret it, and write a policy based on it. My staff would be instantly fired for talking about an SD in public.

    We don’t just simply upload it to our website and say “here ya go”, which is what the bloggers did.

    Shame on Elliott and Frischling for posting this, they could have simply paraphrased it. The document clearly has the SSI footer and header. If they are true airline experts, they should have known better.

    Was this SD top secret? No. But that still doesn’t give journalist and bloggers the right to ignore the fact this was not released to the public for a reason.

  24. michaelk42 December 31, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

    @Nate;

    No.

    “Shame on Elliott and Frischling for posting this, they could have simply paraphrased it.”

    So the information is somehow different if stated a different way?

    “The document clearly has the SSI footer and header. If they are true airline experts, they should have known better.”

    Too late, it was already leaked to them. The feline had obviously exited the container if the bloggers were seeing the document.

    “Was this SD top secret? No. But that still doesn’t give journalist and bloggers the right to ignore the fact this was not released to the public for a reason.”

    Sure there was a reason; that doesn’t mean it was a good reason. But in a way you’re right, they didn’t have so much a right to expose this ineffective/ridiculous response as they had a responsibility to.

  25. Uwe January 1, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Looks like someone has been leaning into the
    TSAs asorted necks.
    The Subpoenas seem to have been retracted.
    ( from seattle-pi 3:20 local time )

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