TSA Stonewalls Congress About Screening Manual Security Breach

Rossides says screening procedures have changed – but won't provide the proof.

December 16, 2009, 2:48 PM

Dec. 17, 2009 — -- On Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) acting director insisted to Congress that the mistaken posting of secret airport screening procedures online posed no threat to holiday travelers because the procedures had changed, but refused to provide members of Congress with the newest version of the TSA's screening manual to prove it.

And current and former TSA employees, who are familiar with the screening process have told ABC News that the procedures have changed little since the most sensitive data in the manual, including the weaknesses of airport X-ray machines, and sample CIA credentials – was improperly redacted and published on the Web.

At a hearing of a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee, TSA acting administrator Gale Rossides insisted that the improperly redacted version of the Standard Operating Procedures screening manual that was discovered online by bloggers was outdated.

"I believe that the system is very strong and it was not compromised as a result of this," said Rossides.

But when pressed to provide members of Congress with the most current version of the manual so they could compare, she refused.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., was outraged.

"Any new versions were built on older versions," said Cleaver. "There obviously is information that is out there that is in the latest iteration."

Cleaver said Rossides was simply unwilling to say "in front of TV cameras" that the system had been compromised.

Rossides testified that she and her team immediately went line by line through the SOP manual to make sure that the unintentional disclosures of information did not pose a threat.

But current and former Transportation Security Officers (TSO), meaning TSA employees who have direct knowledge of screening procedures, disagreed with Rossides about the impact of the breach. They said that they were appalled that the agency failed to take immediate steps across the country to counteract the heightened travel threat caused by the posting of the improperly redacted document.

The TSOs said, for example, that many screening machines still in use are the same machines that were in place when the document was 100 percent current, so the sensitive material released would still be valuable to potential terrorists.

Rossides Refuses to Provide Screening Manual

Robert MacLean, a former Federal Air Marshal who was fired for revealing holes in TSA's security after the 9/11 attacks, said that TSA's assertion that the documents posted are outdated had no merit. "How much in screening procedure changes in 17 months?" asked MacLean. "It's a one-dimensional process."

In addition to revealing the limitations of screening machines, the improperly blacked out portions of the document disclosed special rules for diplomats and law enforcement officers, and that only 20 percent of checked bags are to be hand searched for explosives.

During the hearing, when Rossides repeatedly refused to hand over the most up-to-date version of the SOP for legislators to review, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn., asked why. Rossides replied that she was concerned about keeping such sensitive information protected.

"This implies [we] would disclose the document," said Dent, visibly frustrated.

Rossides pledged to continue to discuss with members of Congress when the TSA would be willing to share the latest SOP manual.

In her testimony she defended the steps she had taken to ensure security for airline passengers.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we have undertaken an operational assessment of any potential vulnerabilities that this disclosure may have caused, and have taken swift action to prevent the information from the SOP from being used to defeat a single point in our multi-layered security system," said Rossides.

Rossides said she could not disclose who did the redacting and who did the posting given the ongoing investigation, and whether a contract employee was involved in the mistaken posting, saying only that one of the five TSA employees suspended after the mistake was a contracted employee at the time of the posting in March.

Members of the subcommittee made it clear that though they wanted to find out exactly who slipped up, they believe TSA as a whole needs to make reforms.

"This was not the failure of an individual, but rather the failure of a system," said Dent.

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