Security Check: The Long List of What You Won't Learn from the Transportation Security Administration

Article excerpt

The 9/11 Commission reports issued this summer offer the public a tantalizing glimpse into the complicated and often secretive world of airline security. They reveal sobering details about communication and other systemic failures that contributed to the hijackers' success. They provide the best possible argument for greater public scrutiny and oversight of the operations of the Transportation Security Administration. That's the agency created in November 2001 to oversee civil aviation security, which was formerly the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But if federal regulators and some members of Congress have their way, the public will be entitled to less information, not more, about security programs and equipment, personnel training and vulnerability assessments. The TSA issued an interim rule in May that permits it to withhold any "sensitive security information" (SSI) if disclosure would "be detrimental to the security of transportation." (The deadline for public comments was July 19, and a final rule will be issued at an unspecified future date.) The secretary of transportation has similar authority to withhold information about security activities if disclosure would be "detrimental to transportation safety."

If that language sounds broad to you, that's because it is. Although the concept of SSI dates back to the airplane hijackings of the 1970s, at that time, under the aegis of the FAA, restrictions on disclosure were limited to information that might harm "the safety of passengers in air transportation." The entities covered by the restrictions were those directly related to aviation, such as airport operators and airlines.

But since 9/11, the universe of records that can be classified as SSI has expanded to encompass just about anything, from details about how the U.S. mail is transported to assessments of how susceptible an airport might be to a terrorist attack. SSI is secret from the moment it is gathered or developed by the TSA, or simply if the transportation secretary declares it so. It isn't subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act, and a proposal in the Senate would exempt it from state open records laws as well. There is no formal classification procedure to determine whether the records really deserve to be kept secret, as would be the case with national security information. And there is no mechanism to declassify SSI. It stays secret forever, or the information can be destroyed, in most cases, once it is no longer necessary. …