5 disciplined over air screening breach

Transportation agency says data were posted online

By Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / December 10, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Five Transportation Security Administration employees have been placed on administrative leave after it was discovered that sensitive guidelines about airport passenger screening were posted on the Internet.

The move was disclosed as senators questioned administration officials yesterday about the second embarrassing security flap at the Homeland Security Department in two weeks. The Secret Service, also part of the department, is investigating how a couple of would-be reality TV stars were able to get into a White House state dinner without an invitation.

Assistant Homeland Security secretary David Heyman told senators yesterday that a full investigation into the Internet security lapse is underway, and that the TSA employees have been taken off duty pending the results of that review. He did not say how many employees were put on leave, but a TSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity put the number at five.

The Homeland Security Department has also stopped posting documents with security information on the Internet until the TSA review is complete, Heyman told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a separate hearing by the Senate Judiciary committee yesterday that the department is taking steps to make sure such a breach never happens again, and the department’s inspector general is conducting its own investigation.

Napolitano added, however, that “the traveling public was not at risk.’’

The passenger screening document was improperly posted in a way that could offer insight into how to sidestep security.

“Even what appeared to be an innocent posting to help federal contractors can have serious consequences for our security,’’ Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said yesterday.

Heyman said he did not know who at TSA signed off on the document’s being posted on the Internet.

The TSA removed the document from the Internet Sunday after the lapse was reported on a blog.

Among many sensitive sections, the document outlines who is exempt from certain additional screening measures, including members of the US armed forces, governors and lieutenant governors, and their immediate families.

It also offers examples of identification documents that screeners accept - including congressional, federal air marshal, and CIA identification cards - and it explains that certain foreign dignitaries with law enforcement escorts are not subjected to any screening at all. It says that certain methods of verifying identification documents are not used on all travelers during peak travel crushes.

TSA said the document, posted in March on the Federal Business Opportunity website, is now outdated. The posting was improper because sensitive information was not properly protected, TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said.

As a result, some websites, using widely available software, were able to uncover the original text of sections that had been blacked out for security reasons. On Sunday, the Wandering Aramean blog pointed out the document in a posting titled “The TSA makes another stupid move.’’

According to the blog, TSA posted a redacted version of the document but did not delete the sensitive information from the file. Instead of removing the text, the government covered it up with a black box. But the text was still embedded in the document and could be uncovered.

TSA had the document removed from the Federal Business Opportunity site on Dec. 6, but copies - with the redacted portions exposed - circulated on the Internet and remain posted on other websites not controlled by the government.

Noting that the transportation agency uses multiple layers of security, Lee said, “TSA is confident that screening procedures currently in place remain strong.’’

The document also describes these screening protocols:

■ Individuals with a passport from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, or Algeria should be given additional screening unless there are specific instructions not to.

■ Aircraft flight crew members in uniform with valid IDs are not subject to restrictions on liquid, gel, aerosol, and footwear.

Former TSA administrator Kip Hawley said the document is not something a security agency would want to inadvertently post online, but he said it is not a road map for terrorists.

“Hyperventilating that this is a breach of security that’s going to endanger the public is flat wrong,’’ Hawley said.