TSA investigates online posting of airport screening procedures

The Transportation Security Administration is investigating a breach in which a manual detailing sensitive airport screening procedures appeared on a government website, officials said Tuesday.

Legislators criticized the TSA for inadvertently revealing information such as the criteria for airport searches and the passenger nationalities that require special scrutiny.

The agency posted the 94-page document on a federal website in March while offering opportunities for private contractors. The manual was not removed until Sunday, when bloggers alerted the agency’s in-house blogger that nominally redacted portions were visible if readers cut and pasted the document, officials said.

“The release of a Standard Operating Procedures manual for TSA officers is an embarrassing mistake that calls into question the judgment of agency managers,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “A security manual, redacted or not, is not the type of document we want to share with the world. That it was incompetently redacted only compounds the error.”

The agency acknowledged the security breach and announced that a full review was underway. Although the document was described as containing “security sensitive information,” a TSA statement said the traveling public had not been endangered.

“An outdated, unclassified version of a Standard Operating Procedures was improperly posted by the agency to the Federal Business Opportunities website, wherein redacted information was not properly protected,” the statement said. It asserted that “while the document does demonstrate the complexities of checkpoint security, it does not contain information related to the specifics of everyday checkpoint screening procedures.”

In fact, evolving intelligence about potential threats prevented implementation of the manual. Procedures have been updated six times since it was written, said a TSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the internal review was not complete.

“The traveling public should be assured that appropriate measures have been put in place to ensure the continued implementation of a strong security screening program,” the statement said.

Nonetheless, some legislators called for an outside agency to conduct an investigation. In a letter Tuesday to Gale Rossides, acting administrator of the agency, leaders of the House Committee on Homeland Security also warned that “online sources” in the public had compromised the information by posting it on websites.

“We are deeply concerned by this incident, as it appears to demonstrate some challenges that TSA faces in the handling” of security-sensitive information, said the letter from Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee. “Undoubtedly, this raises potential security concerns across our transportation system.”

The manual was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website as part of a program in which the TSA contracts with private firms to provide security screening at airports, officials said.

The redacted sections included a directive to conduct special screening of travelers from 12 nations with governments considered hostile to the United States or those from regions plagued by war and terrorist activity. The document also outlined screening procedures for passengers such as law enforcement officers, elected officials and diplomats.

The TSA is being run by an acting chief because Congress has not yet confirmed a nominee to the leadership post.