Dec. 23, 2009 — -- With the approval of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Sig Sauer gun company has released specific information about the model of pistol that Federal Air Marshals will soon be carrying – data that both current and former Air Marshals say puts the Marshals and air passengers at risk.
"This is the last thing you want to give to anyone who wants to carry out an act of terror," said Frank Terreri, president of the Federal Air Marshal Agency, a trade group representing the Marshals. "Anyone who wants to take over a plane can be proactive and research that type of weapon, basically know everything about that weapon before going on the plane," said Terreri. "You really don't want to give that playbook out to your enemy."
John Adler, president of the National Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents officers from more than 65 federal agencies, including the Federal Air Marshal Service, said the gun information was part of "an alarming pattern of disclosures" by the TSA that only serves to jeopardize the safety of the [Air Marshals]."
The disclosure comes on the heels of a massive security breach in which the TSA published online an improperly redacted manual that revealed sensitive information about air passenger screening.
The Sig Sauer company announced via press release late last week that it had signed a multimillion dollar contract to equip the Air Marshals with its .357 SIG caliber P250 Compact pistol. In the release, the company said the "innovative design concept of the P250 pistol is developed around a serialized modular frame and fire control assembly."
Bud Fini, vice president for marketing at Sig Sauer, defended the decision to publicize the deal. Fini said the release that he sent out was approved by the Air Marshals. "They changed it slightly, but there was no sensitive information in it," said Fini. "I don't think it's that big of a deal."
Weighing the Risk to the Air Mashals
Adler said that he disagrees: "The agency should make every effort to protect not only the anonymity of the Air Marshals but the equipment they use and their operational protocol."
A spokesperson for the TSA told ABC News that the release of the information did not create a risk for Marshals and travelers. "Publicizing the type of firearm a Federal Air Marshal uses does not provide a security advantage for those with ill intentions," said Greg Soule.
He also defended Sig Sauer's decision to publicize its contract. "The information in the Sig Sauer press release is based on publicly available information," said Soule. When asked where the information was publicly available prior to the press release, Soule said he meant that information about the Marshals' previous firearm had been published in the media, that the new contract was available via FOIA request to the public, and that Sig Sauer was not barred from disclosing data about the new firearm.
A second TSA spokesperson was blunter. "It's not SSI," said Nelson Minerly, referring to the designation Sensitive Security Information. "I don't have to come up with excuses as to why it's not SSI." Much of the data revealed in the improperly redacted screening manual had been deemed SSI.
But Terreri, who became an Air Marshal after 9/11, said he believed an Air Marshal who revealed the same gun info as the Sig Sauer company would have been in serious trouble. "If a Federal Air Marshal had disclosed the same information, they would be fired for disclosure of SSI -- it would be a breach of our rules," Terreri said, adding that "there's no upside to releasing this information."
Critics say that identifying the specific gun carried by air marshals makes it easier to impersonate a Marshal and, more importantly, lets would-be attackers know what they're up against. They can learn the gun's capabilities, and how to operate it should they seize one in an ambush.
Terreri said that would-be attackers now can "determine if the weapon has any type of safety mechanism, how many rounds each magazine can hold, and the typical characteristics of the weapon."
A former Air Marshal said the disclosure was a boon to potential hijackers. "Now they know which exact model to train with when they ambush a Marshal trying to stay alert in the most boring job in law enforcement."
The TSA's Soule countered that Marshals are trained to retain their weapons in such situations. Said Soule, "The training and marksmanship [of marshals] is more sensitive information than the type of gun that they have."The improperly redacted Standard Operating Procedures screening manual that the TSA posted contained closely guarded secrets like special rules for diplomats and CIA and law enforcement officers. The 93-page document shows sample CIA, Congressional and law enforcement credentials that experts say would make it easy for terrorists to duplicate.
Damaging Information Leaked, Officials Said
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.
But 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.
TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides told Congress last week that the TSA manual posted online was outdated and therefore posed no security threat to holiday travelers.