In a massive security breach, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inadvertently posted online its airport screening procedures manual, including closely guarded secrets regarding special rules for diplomats and CIA and law enforcement officers.
Such glitches are made more likely, say critics, because there is no one at the helm of the TSA.
"One of the problems I see is we don't have anybody in charge," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We've been without a TSA administrator a good part of this year."
The most sensitive parts of the Standard Operating Procedures manual were apparently redacted in a way that computer-savvy individuals easily overcame.
The improperly redacted areas indicate that only 20 percent of checked bags are to be hand searched for explosives and reveal in detail the limitations of x-ray screening machines.
"When you don't have someone at the top, you have many of these issues that we're dealing with now," said Thompson.
DeMint Blocks Nominee
The previous TSA dministrator, Kip Hawley, stepped down on January 20, 2009. The acting administrator is Gale Rossides. President Obama tapped Erroll Southers, currently assistant chief for homeland security at Los Angeles airport, to become the TSA's permanent director back in September.
But Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) placed a hold on the Southers nomination earlier this month. In October, Sen. DeMint had sent a letter to Southers asking him for "a clear answer" on whether he would permit unionization of screeners at the nation's airports, which DeMint opposes.
In the wake of the screening manual snafu, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), chair of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, called forthe confirmation of Southers.
"The release of a Standard Operating Procedures manual for TSA officers is an embarrassing mistake that calls into question the judgment of agency managers," said Lieberman. "I would also add that the swift confirmation of Erroll Southers as TSA administrator will go a long way toward providing TSA the leadership it needs to put this issue behind it, and move forward."
Thompson said the decision by "a certain senator" to block Southers was "causing significant leadership issues at the agency."
A spokesman for Senator DeMint defended the hold on Southers. "The last thing we need to bring to TSA is the DMV's human resources model," he said. "This is pure politics by Rep. Thompson. President Obama and liberals in Congress are trying to pay back unions for their political support in the last elections, despite the fact that unionizing TSA screeners will hurt security efforts to protect Americans."
"If unions take over TSA and end the performance-based criteria for advancement and promote based on your seniority as a union member," said the spokesman, "you'll see even more errors like the one you saw yesterday."
Damaging Information in Screening Manual
Officials say the most damaging information in the unredacted manual is what size electrical wire can go undetected by airport screening machines -- valuable information for a bomb maker.
The document also includes a list of VIPs and federal officials who can get specialized or no screening, as well as items that screeners can opt not to check, including wheelchairs, footwear of the disabled, prosthetic devices and casts and orthopedic shoes.
Said former TSA inspector general Clark Kent Ervin, "It obviously gives a road map to terrorists as to exactly how to exploit the weaknesses in our aviation security system. And it's particularly galling because we've spent the bulk of our money and attention since 9/11 on the aviation sector."
The TSA was created after the 9/11 attacks as a response to the ease with which hijackers were able to get through airport security. But it has been a troubled agency from the beginning.
"I'm afraid to say that there has been a pattern of incompetence and ineptitude on the part of the TSA over the years," said Ervin. "There have been improvements in TSA, but it appears as though these kinds of things happen again and again."
In a written statement the TSA said the inadvertently released screening manual is an outdated version of procedures from last year that has since been updated six times.
Even so, the TSA has launched a full investigation. One thing officials have already learned is that if they had blacked out the sensitive parts with a magic marker, instead of a fancy computer program, there would have been no way for this breach to happen.